When Nazi Germany fired the first shots of World War II in 1939, their enemies were ill-prepared for the assault, and by 1942 Germany and its allies controlled most of Europe, including a large chunk of Russia, and almost all of North Africa. By the spring of 1943, however, the tide of war had turned; the Nazis had been driven out of Africa and had lost much of their ground in Russia. That summer, the Allies invaded Italy, and by September of 1943 Italy had surrendered. Most of northern Italy remained Nazi-controlled after that, however, and the Italian mountains prevented the Allies from gaining much ground there. It was clear that an invasion of France was necessary.
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Allies invaded northern France, in the region known as Normandy. Planning for the assault assigned five different landing zones. American troops hit Utah and Omaha Beaches; the British took Gold and Sword Beaches; and Canadian infantry and armor were assigned to Juno Beach. The troops at Utah Beach landed in the wrong area, and their mistake meant that they met little resistance and thus had great success; Omaha Beach, by contrast, was quite strongly defended, and the in-vaders there took heavy casualties before finally establishing a small beachhead. The situation of the Brits and Canadians was somewhere in between, as they faced hard fighting but succeeded in driving several miles inland.
The Germans’ only real hope of fending off the invasion had been to drive the Allies back off the beach, and they had failed. From this point, the Allies made steady gains, and by September 15, 1944, they had reached the borders of Germany itself. The Nazis did launch one last offensive that December, sparking a battle which would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, but the offensive failed, and on May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany formally surrendered; in Europe, World War II was over.
And some of you are looking at me and thinking, “And what does this have to do with Christmas?” I can hear you from all the way up here. Just bear with me, because there’s an important parallel to our own lives in this. The fighting in Europe didn’t end until that day in May, which was quickly dubbed V-E Day, but that wasn’t when the war was won. To all intents and purposes, the war ended on D-Day, when the Allied invasion of Normandy succeeded; Germany’s last real hope of victory depended on keeping those armies from securing that beachhead. Once they failed there, the rest of the war was nothing more than a formality, for all the suffering and death it brought. Hitler might just as well have sued for peace on June 7, 1944, for all the good fighting was going to do him. On that day, while the Allies had not yet defeated Germany, they had already won; their victory was already assured, but not yet fully realized, because the enemy refused to accept their defeat. As a consequence, they had to keep waiting, and suffering, and working, in order to bring about the victory they had already earned.
We live in much the same position. We have a pretty good idea of what victory will look like, because Isaiah and Malachi give us a vivid picture; and all we really have to do is to compare what they describe to the world we see around us, and we can tell the difference. Once again, Malachi gives us a powerful image of God’s judgment on the wicked: like the stubble that was burned off the fields after the harvest, they will be burned to ash by the coming of God. At the same time, though, he also shows us the joy that will come along with that for the righteous; to those who revere the name of the Lord, the fire that consumes the wicked will be glorious light, the sun of righteousness rising with healing in its wings—a verse which Charles Wesley rightly applies to Jesus in the carol we’ll sing in a few minutes. God’s faithful ones will be released from the power of the wicked and all the things that bind us in this world, and we will finally experience the fullness of his freedom, like calves released from the stall to run and play in the fields beyond. It will be, truly, a new and glorious day.
Isaiah, meanwhile, focuses on what that day will look like for God’s faithful ones, what it will be like to live in the kingdom of God. “No longer will violence be heard in your land.” “The sun will no more be your light by day,” nor will the moon light the night, “for the Lord will be your everlasting light . . . and your days of sorrow will end. Your people will all be righteous . . .” Good news to the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, release for the prisoners, comfort for all who mourn; the day of the Lord’s favor on those who seek him, and his vengeance on the wicked. The devastations of the ages repaired. This is a beautiful and glorious picture of God’s reign, it’s a staggering promise—but it’s clearly not the world as we know it.
And yet . . . In one of his very first public appearances, Jesus read from the heart of this passage, and then proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At other times he said the same thing in different ways, declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” This great promise, this future which Jesus taught was coming, he also declares to have already come. The kingdom of God is not yet here, it still remains to be realized, but in Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit it’s already here among us.
You can see this clearly in the way Jesus uses Isaiah 61. He reads the promise of verse 1, declares that he has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—and then stops. He doesn’t go on to announce “the day of vengeance of our God,” he stops. Jesus in his first coming—and ultimately, on the cross—began this process, but he didn’t finish it; he inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth, but he didn’t bring it fully into being. That’s left to his second coming, which is still in the future. That’s why Scripture says repeatedly that we are in the last days; the dramatic stuff that Revelation talks about hasn’t happened yet—or at least not for the last time—but that could be right around the corner. In every way that matters, we have been in the last days for two thousand years, ever since Christ came, because that was D-Day. The war which has been raging on earth ever since our ultimate grandparents first disobeyed God has already been won; the only question remaining is how much more fighting there will be.
Which means that the work Christ began is still going on—in us. During his time on Earth, Jesus repeatedly declared that with his coming, “the kingdom of God is among you,” and “the kingdom of God is near,” but he didn’t only apply that to himself; in Luke 10, he sent out his followers with the same message, to make the point clear that the kingdom of God isn’t just present in Jesus, it’s also present in his disciples. And if you look at that passage, what you’ll see is that he didn’t send them out just to say this, but also to back it up by doing the things he did—specifically, by healing the sick. The proclamation of the kingdom of God is backed by signs of the power of the kingdom of God. The miracles are the evidence that when the disciples proclaim a reality greater than the world as we know it, they aren’t just making it up. The kingdom of God is in fact already present in this world, in Jesus Christ the Son of God—and, because of him, in them; and if in them, then in us.
In other words, we as Christians live between the times, between D-Day and V-E Day; we live in two realities at once. We live in the present reality that Jesus brought the kingdom of God to earth, brought us into his kingdom by his death and resurrection, and sealed us to himself by giving us his Holy Spirit; and so we look back and we celebrate his first coming at Christmas. At the same time, we do not live in his perfected kingdom, but in a fallen, sin-soaked, pain-haunted, temptation-riddled, death-scarred world, and we cling to the hope of what God has promised us; and so we look forward in anticipation of Christ’s second coming, when all will be made more right than we can now imagine. As Christians, we look forward and backward at once, because we live between the times, citizens of two worlds at the same time. We live as the representatives of a future that is not only coming, but incoming; there is a new world breaking in to this one, and we’re the thin point of the wedge, the point of contact.
What this means is that though I focused, the last few Sundays we were here, on what Advent teaches us about waiting—and necessarily so, I think, because our culture is increasingly teaching us that we don’t have to wait, and shouldn’t have to—there’s a lot more to it than that; there’s also the broader reality that the whole world is waiting for Christ to come again, waiting for its redemption, waiting to experience the fullness of the kingdom of God. Sometimes people cry out against that fact, asking with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord? How long will the wicked prosper? How long will you let the injustice and suffering of the world go on?” We don’t have answers for those questions, because God hasn’t given us those answers; we don’t know when Christ will come again to set everything finally right, and so we don’t know why he hasn’t come back already. But what we do have, as we contemplate the child in the manger, is a response to those questions. God responded to the wickedness and injustice and suffering in this world by sending his Son Jesus Christ, and Christ left us behind to continue his work until all the world has heard the good news and the time is right for him to return; and as this world waits for that fulfillment, that wait is our opportunity to work on his behalf as his agents and representatives, as the agents and representatives of the world which is to come.
What this means is, we as the church aren’t just about gathering for an hour or two on Sunday mornings. This is an important part of our life in Christ, as we come together to worship him and to be trained for the rest of our mission, it’s the beginning of everything we do, but it’s only the beginning. As I said on Christmas Eve, when Jesus returned to the Father, he left us behind to shine his light into every corner of the world. Part of that is what we call evangelism—getting to know people who don’t know our Lord, and making the introduction. Part of it is what we call local mission—helping to care for the poor and the vulnerable, for those in need. Part of it is discipleship: letting his light shine into every corner of our own lives, and especially the dark ones. Part of it in the coming years, I suspect, will once again be demonstrating that the power of God truly is greater than the power of this world, through such spiritual gifts as healing and prophecy. That hasn’t been something Presbyterians have been on about very much, because it hasn’t been something to which most of modern American society has been open, but I think I see that changing; if I’m right, that’s going to become a much more important part of the witness of the church in this country in the days ahead. And part of this, too, is being willing to stand up for what’s right even when the world around us is going wrong—to follow the example of Jesus, who told people the truth they didn’t want to hear, so clearly and unflinchingly that they killed him for it.
The common denominator in all this is the realization that we don’t work for this world, we work for Christ, and Christ alone. We live backwards to the rest of the world—we live from the future to the present, and our ultimate allegiance is to a kingdom which has not yet fully come. We are, right now, the kingdom of God on this earth; we are the incoming kingdom, which will fully come when Christ returns in glory, and we are called to live in the light of his coming, according to his agenda, not this world’s, and not our own. We’ve been given a message for the world—now is the acceptable time, now is the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of his judgment has been put on hold to give as many people as possible a chance to respond—and we need to share it with as many people as we can. We’ve been given the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and we need to shine that light wherever we go, in every conversation we have and on every issue we face. Sometimes that will square with what this world recognizes as good, and we’ll be praised for it; sometimes it will bring us into conflict with the powers that be and with the ruling assumptions of our culture, and we’ll be criticized. Whichever it is, we need to follow Christ as faithfully as we’re able, regardless of what anyone else thinks of us. This is the work God has given us to do while we wait.