How is Advent meaningful when we know the message and the story so well? Because Advent is not just about remembering God’s story, but rather a time to have our lives undone and rewritten into God’s story.
As I have the opportunity to travel, I increasingly enjoy looking for places to eat that are not chains or franchises. Food tells a story, and as the tag-line of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” host Guy Fieri goes, we need to “slow down, and take a look around.” When we move beyond intake of food as mere mechanism for survival, and instead look at the intake of food as participating in culture, story, and creativity, the idea of eating a meal becomes a whole adventure in and of itself.
Slow down, and take a look around. It sounds like it could have a lot more application than just food. December is here already, and with it comes the frenetic pace to finish the year. There is no shortage of things to occupy our time. And of course, the church will roll out her best in décor and art, as we focus our time on “Advent.” But what is “Advent,” exactly? We know the story. We can nearly recite all the verses. The songs and scenery hardly change. How do we fight simple rote and nostalgia with fresh eyes and ears? More than merely remembering Jesus’ first coming, Advent is a time to long for Jesus’ return.
The time of advent is a time of preparation. It is a time to slow down, look around, at both the world and ourselves and be reminded of why Jesus had to come. We are a sin-sick people. The aftershocks of the fall are all around us, like the waves in the sea. War, sickness, anger, greed, selfishness, injustice; all are things that are part and parcel of a world in need of salvation from itself. It was this world that Jesus was born into to save. It is this world that Jesus will come again to in order to transform and fully and finally redeem.
Dr. Robert Webber writes this about Advent, where he states:
Advent is a time when we ask, even plead with God not to lave us alone, for when God leaves us to our own choices and turns us over to our own ways, we are certain to drift from him. Our indifference to God is soon turned into spiritual boredom, a boredom that leads to spiritual inertia and ultimate death to spiritual realities. Advent is a time to cry, ‘O God, turn me away from my indifference, create in me a heart of repentance, and lead me to the waters of spiritual refreshment.’… (Ancient Future Time, 43)
Dr. Webber goes on to say this:
In Advent we celebrate the beginning and the ending of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil, and we call upon God to accomplish that victory in our own lives, to break in on us, to be born in our hearts, and to create us anew. This is the message of Isaiah to us: a Savior is coming not only to Israel but to the whole world. This is the message that becomes intensified by John the Baptist and Mary, who encounter us with the dramatic call to an expectation of the Christ child who will accomplish the [final] redemption of all things. (Ancient-Future Time, 44)
As we journey through this season of Advent together, find time to slow down. Find time to look at your world and your heart. As we encounter all the pain and frustration of this world, know that God is coming. As the hymn “Joy to the World” proclaims:
No more let sins and sorrows grow/nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found/Far as the curse is found/Far as the curse is found!
The promise of Advent is the promise of one who will stop at nothing to pursue, recover, redeem, and restore all that which is lost. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of that.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)
“All my life I had heard words such as, “Let God in your life;” “Give God a chance,’ “Accept him as your Savior and you will discover the rich meaning of life:” I gradually began to understand that these phrases and others like them turn the gospel inside out. I once understood the gospel as God asking me to let him into my narrative, to find room for him in my heart and life. But now I realize that God bids me to find my place in his narrative. In God’s story, he, with his own two hands-the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit-recapitulated and reversed the human situation so I can now live in him.”
One of the trends that I am seeing over and over in the material that I have been reading is the overt nature in which my own apprehension of the eschatological dimension of worship is stunted. I think this is because I am gun shy of the whole topic. Not because it isn’t important; rather, because in many church contexts as soon as the words “eschaton” or “end-times” are uttered people would come out of the wood-work like a comicon convention with their Tim LaHaye books and their Jack Van Impe brand predictions about a dispensational pre-millennial rapture/tribulation/new world order.
In addition to all of those positions being recent developments in the church, biblically ridiculous, and not to mention a bit convoluted to unpack, the bigger issue is that people get offended (read: angry) when we use the term eschatology to mean something more biblical, more reformed, more in line with the arc of redemptive history that God has created and is taking the whole world to. But people don’t want to hear that. They want to talk about how Obama is the anti-Christ, how the USA will escape a military takeover because of some obscure passage in Daniel, or something else. They don’t want to consider for a moment that a proper view of the eschaton involves God not letting any part of the fall be victorious in this world. The whole world was cursed, humanity included, and the whole world is being redeemed, including the ransomed of humanity.
But it was tiring to even write that; finding the strength to step in the fray and teach that seems like it would be a whole lot of work.
The reading in Webber, Mouw, Meyers, Frame, and others have pointed out that worship is both remembrance (reminder) and rehearsal. It seems like not dealing with eschatology head on is kind of like permitting kudzu to grow. Eventually you are in a losing battle with the weed just trying to keep it from completely eclipsing everything instead of doing the hard work of preventing those seeds from being planted in the first place.
Observe these few quotes from When the Kings Come Marching in: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem
“But the Holy City is not wholly discontinuous with present conditions. The biblical glimpses of this City give us reason to think that its contents will not be completely unfamiliar to people like us. In fact, the contents of the City will be more akin to our present cultural patterns than is usually acknowledged in discussions of the afterlife.”
And this one:
“We – at least many of us – seem to assume that the present patterns and entities of corporate life will simply be done away with when the time for “heaven” comes.”
If we prepare the church for its place in the New Heavens and New Earth, we must begin to think of the new creation in language that the Bible refers to it. Which means that we must not grow weary in speaking against the salesmen and panic-mongers who try to hijack the entire narrative of eschatology in the church.
Oh yes. One other thing. The world is not going to end on May 21, 2011. We aren’t smarter than Jesus.
We don’t have much of a place for ritual here in the west, at least not formal ritual. Ritual slaps in the face of modernity. Ritual doesn’t make us think of forward progress, but instead makes us think of being frozen in the past. People who have been influenced by the enlightenment get a bit shaky when they don’t think they are moving forward, because the enlightenment stresses that the only way to measure success is to move forward, and improve the past.
When we think of re-enactment, we think of something cheesy like civil war buffs dressed up in costume pretending to kill each other, or single mothers trying to make ends meet churning butter in Colonial Williamsburg so tourists can feel like they had a taste of “the way things were”.
Why is ritual important? Why is re-enactment, and retelling of narrative, such a vital part of the scriptures? Because ritual tells us something. It doesn’t just recast what has already been so that we rest in it; rather, ritual retells what has been precisely because what has been is incomplete. The retelling of the past is like recapitulating the play up through Act 1, because intermission has gone on so long that people might not remember what happened and fail to make the storyline connections to the rest of the play.
“In the meantime, worship is the witness to this vision. In worship we remember God’s redemptive work in history. We especially remember the story of Israel and how it is a type of the Christ event, pointing to the saving events surrounding the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We also anticipate the future. Worship connects the past with the future, for it is here in worship where God recasts his original vision. However, a worship that casts God’s vision for his world appears to have become lost in many of our churches.”
When the people of God celebrated his mighty acts of redemption, they were always postured two ways. They looked back, to tell the story of where they had been, and looked forward, to tell the story of what God had promised would be. And in the New Testament, we find the fulfillment in Jesus. But even Jesus reminds us that what he brought to us in his incarnation was not the final completion, but simply the inauguration of what was to come. He sent his Holy Spirit to complete the work that he began, so that when he returns again he can present to the father the full and completed work of all that he came to do.
Why do we have such a hard time telling and casting this narrative as we gather to worship each and every Sunday?
I think we have a hard time viewing worship as a re-casting of God’s vision for his world, in part, because so often worship is a casting of a vision of our (the pastor’s) vision for our world, that is, the needs that are empty in our lives that the church full of people is somehow (wrongly) meant to fill. And so, we are wary of presenting to people a comprehensive view of this vision because it might not fill seats quickly, fill coffers fully, or fill our (my) ego comprehensively.
I find myself more often than not praying that Jesus would remind me again and again that this is real, that He knows my need, that only He can fill my need, and that it is His story, not mine.