Weary World: Advent 2022
I’m in a bar and everyone around me is drunk when a friend of a friend at the table next to me says, “Church? Man, fuck Jesus.” The mutual friend shoots her a look and she apologizes, which is kind but unnecessary. I always appreciate authenticity, and inebriation is good at authenticity because it makes us forget our filters. Besides that, she’s doing holy work, I think, cursing out Jesus in a too-loud sports bar. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus himself reminds us that salt that loses its saltiness is worthless. It should be walked over and thrown out. This friend of a friend is simply looking around, seeing a busted-out light on a distant hill and calling it darkness.
Today marks the arrival of a new season in the Christian calendar. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, marking our transition from Ordinary Time to the prepatory time for Christmastide. For Christians, this is a time of waiting with expectation for the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season in which we as Christians heighten our relationship with generosity, joy, gratitude, hope, and love. It is a time for cheerful and eager expectation. for that hope our souls deeply long for, and a time for contemplation as we make ready the world for Christ’s arrival. On the first Sunday, in churches around the world, clergy light the hope candle and reflect on God’s people as beacons of light in the world.
As illustrated in the story above, I’m not sure how well we as a people have done in being lights unto the world, quietly pointing towards the coming hope of the savior. Many of us have given into the temptation of Nationalism. Our sanctuaries have turned from reverent to commercial. We’ve become too interested in laws over relationships. And the weary world, desperate to make sense of the senseless, to find joy amidst the suffering, to find somewhere to belong, has taken notice. The light of the world is missing because we are being a faithless people.
And yet, as I write to you, my friends, on this first day of the Advent season, I am still full of hope for God’s people. I am still hopeful on behalf of the weary world. The problems we are facing as a Body are not new. In Jesus’ life, the main adversaries to his ministry were not atheists; they were the religious. These leaders prioritized legalism over love, rightness over relationship, political power over humble suffering. Jesus’ birth, his life, and his eventual death, are completely wrapped up in the struggle for and against God’s own people. We cannot have a discussion about Christmas without having a discussion about the failures of God’s people.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about. His mother Mary and Joseph had promised to get married. But before they started to live together, it became clear that she was going to have a baby. She became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph was faithful to the law. But he did not want to put her to shame in public. So he planned to divorce her quietly.
But as Joseph was thinking about this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary home as your wife. The baby inside her is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus. That’s because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to bring about what the Lord had said would happen. He had said through the prophet, “The virgin is going to have a baby. She will give birth to a son. And he will be called Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) The name Immanuel means “God with us.”
Joseph woke up. He did what the angel of the Lord commanded him to do. He took Mary home as his wife. But he did not sleep with her until she gave birth to a son. And Joseph gave him the name Jesus.Matthew 1:18-25 NIRV
In Matthew’s account of the time leading up to Jesus’ birth, we see Joseph caught up in a legalistic scandal. The woman he is supposed to marry has been both unfaithful and impure. She’s pregnant and there’s no way it could be his. Even in the midst of the legalistic requirement to leave her, Joseph tries his best to be kind. He plans to “divorce her quietly” so as to not “put her to shame in public.” We don’t get reactions to Mary’s pregnancy from many others in the gospel accounts, but if Joseph’s initial reaction is any indication, I think we can imagine the horror Mary faced from the faithful around her. She’s the epitome of everything the traditional religious person hates. Today, we might think about Mary as a gay, drug-addicted, immigrant woman on her way out from an abortion clinic. She’s who preachers are talking about when they speak of the corrupted culture of today’s youth. She’s the failure of all her community’s dreams.
Obviously, as Joseph comes to learn, Mary has been called by God. This is a holy woman, not an impure one.
This is similar to how we experience life today. We don’t often get to see behind the curtains of someone’s life. We don’t see how God has called them, or how God is working in their life. All that we see is their behavior. We see the things they’ve committed, the people they’re surrounded by, the places they’ve ended up. And we compare that to the scriptures, to a right way of living, to the things we claim to believe but rarely practice for ourselves.
I have to wonder, in reading this account of an almost divorce, how wrong have I been about what I perceived was happening in my neighbor’s life? What assumptions did I use to guide my judgements on another person?
I am hopeful about the state of God’s people amidst all the grief they have caused me, my community, my friends and the people they love. I am hopeful because despite our ragged, assuming humanity, God is bringing a child to save the world. All that we need to do is love our wife, despite our failure to understand.
As you move through this first week of advent, consider how your own assumptions and behaviors have dimmed your light and have impacted your ability to represent Jesus to the least of these. Consider how you can feed the hungry simply because you have an extra loaf of bread and not because you are the self-righteous coming to redeem the starved. Reflect on how you might facilitate the passing of God’s love rather than enforcing the consequences of God’s laws. Ask God to intercede in your life and in your faith community to be people that get others curious about God’s redemptive mercy, not cursing out the son in a bar because Christians have been so unkind.
Have hope in your redemption, Church, but have the active kind of hope that moves.
Prayer: Deliver to us, the many-times-great-grandson of the sex worker Rahab, Lord, that we might learn to see you in unexpected places. Break us of our communal fears, that you might speak to us and reveal your plans. Make me a person of light, Lord, that I might die to myself to shine to your humble and simplistic reign.
Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).
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