The Incoming Kingdom

(Isaiah 60:15-61:6, Malachi 3:16-4:3; Luke 4:16-21)

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.

Who Can Stand?

(Isaiah 40:1-11, Malachi 2:17-3:6; Mark 1:1-8)

I learned something this week:  preaching on waiting can be just as dangerous as praying for patience. I’ve spent the week waiting on the folks who don’t turn right on reds, and the ones who don’t go when the light turns green, and the drivers who are afraid to get within five miles an hour of the speed limit. But you know what? I’m going to keep talking about this anyway, because it’s important for us to understand why we’re waiting, and not let ourselves be tempted into finding something else to do. In our society in which the most-pressed button in the elevator is the “door close” button, because we can’t wait ten seconds for it to close by itself, we need to understand who and what we’re waiting for, and that the waiting is necessary to prepare us for his coming.

We have a tendency to miss that, because the images we have of Christmas are such beautiful and non-threatening ones—“mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild,” with the animals watching cutely nearby. In our imaginations, even the shepherds are sanitized. Christmas is a joyous celebration, so our natural instinct is to make it safe and happy and fun, with no sharp edges anywhere in sight. The thing is, though, the coming of Jesus wasn’t like that, and his second coming won’t be either. One of the things I most appreciate about Narnia is the way in which C. S. Lewis captures this—when Aslan appears, it’s always a wonderful thing, but it’s never easy or merely pleasant, even for those who love him best; as Mr. Beaver says of him, he’s good, but he isn’t safe.

Indeed, he isn’t safe precisely because he’s good; this is why, as is so often said of him, he isn’t a tame lion. True goodness, true joy, true holiness, true love—anything which is an aspect of the character of God—these are all wonderful things, but also very perilous, because they’re powerful and deeply real; the petty parts of us, our shameful little desires and our selfish whims, cannot endure their presence. There’s a real pain that comes with any sort of intense encounter with God, or with someone who is very close to God, as those parts of ourselves are burned away or driven into hiding—or roused to fight back. This is what the judgment and wrath of God really mean: not that he picks people out and punishes them because he doesn’t like them, but simply that to our sinful natures, the goodness and holiness and love and joy and peace of God, all of his character, are intolerably painful; we can either choose to draw close to him, and allow his presence to purge us of our sin, or we can cling to our sin, and be purged of his presence.

This means that for God to be born in the world as a human being was a wonderful thing, yes, but also a terrible thing. John the Baptizer understood this, and the writers of the Scripture understood this, even if we too often don’t. That’s why we have this curious little thing here in Mark, something which you probably noticed: he says, “As it is written in Isaiah,” and then he doesn’t quote Isaiah, he quotes Malachi. It’s only after he’s thrown Malachi in there that he gets to Isaiah. The folks who like to look for errors and contradictions in Scripture jump all over this one, but the truth is, this is no mistake.

What you have to understand is that Mark has this habit of making what we call “sandwiches” in his gospel (sorry for the technical terminology), and this is a classic example. You can find another in Mark 11. Jesus curses the fig tree, it withers, and he uses that to teach the disciples a lesson. But Mark doesn’t tell that story straight through; instead, he separates it, and in between, he puts the story of the cleansing of the temple. The cursing of the fig tree “sandwiches” this story. Mark does this to give added emphasis to the cleansing of the temple, and to tell us that these two events belong together—we can’t really understand one of them without understanding the other one. It’s the same thing here. Mark says, “As it is written in Isaiah . . . the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But he doesn’t leave this in one piece—he separates it, and in between the two halves, he puts Malachi 3:1.

To see what he’s doing here, let’s look first at Isaiah 40. To really understand Isaiah 40, you have to know what comes immediately before it. In Isaiah 39:6-7, the prophet gives this word to King Hezekiah: “The time is coming when everything you have—all the treasures stored up by your ancestors—will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. Some of your own descendants will be taken away into exile, and they will be made eunuchs who will serve in the palace of Babylon’s king.” It was a prophecy of complete disaster, and it fell on Judah early in the 6th century BC; the country was conquered by Babylon, Jerusalem left in ruins, most of the population carried off in exile, and its kings imprisoned for their pathetic attempts to rebel.

But that bad news could not be the last word. What of the promise God had made to David that his descendants would rule Israel forever? What of Isaiah’s own prophecies of hope? And so God gave Isaiah a great word of hope and deliverance, to be sealed up until the proper time had come. God would judge his people, but in time he would relent. “Comfort, comfort my people,” he declares. “Encourage Jerusalem; my people are afraid of me now, but tell them that their time of hardship is over. Their sins have been paid for, and I have given them a full pardon.” You will note that this text doesn’t say that they have suffered long enough to pay the price for their sins themselves; rather, someone else has paid the price for their sins, and in response God has lifted their sentence.

Next, another voice calls out: one of God’s angels announcing a road to be built for God through the wilderness. This is to be a mighty road, a freeway through the desert, and nothing will stand in its way: the Lord is going to Babylon to bring his people home. The valley floors will be raised, the great peaks flattened; hilly areas will be turned into plains, and great passes opened through the mountains. When he led his people out of Egypt, God reached down and parted the sea to make a road for his people; now, in going to bring his people back out of Babylon, he will do the same to the wilderness, turning all its danger and chaos into a safe, wide road for his deliverance. The glory of the Lord will be revealed to Israel and the world as he brings his people home.

After this great declaration, another voice commands, “Call out!” The Lord has promised to deliver his people—spread the news! Shout it from the rooftops! But the reply comes back cynical and bitter: “Why bother? This is never going to happen. People are nothing but grass in the desert; all their love, mercy, loyalty, commitment are as fragile as flowers in the field. The first hot wind comes along, and they shrivel up and die.” The word translated “mercy” there is the Hebrew word hesed, which is one of those great Old Testament words that is just too big for any English word; it gets variously translated as “mercy,” “covenant mercy,” “lovingkindness,” “covenant loyalty,” etc. It is the word used of the love of God in his covenant faithfulness to his people, and carries the idea of his unchanging reliability; it is love in action, steadfast love that always keeps its promises, and unswerving loyalty and faithfulness. The idea is that our own attempts at hesed last only until the first challenge comes, and then they wither.

This bitter, cynical word had to be spoken because it had to be answered—and it is; the first voice replies, “Yes, everything you say is true, but that doesn’t matter. This is God’s word, he has promised, and his word will not fail; his word endures forever.” Deliverance, you see, isn’t based on our ability to earn it; it comes because God is faithful to keep his promises. Of course, everyone needs to know this is happening, and so the command comes to Jerusalem, Mt. Zion, to spread the word. Jerusalem had heard the news that God was bringing his people home, and her responsibility now was to pass it on to all the cities of Judah: “Look, God is coming!” The Lord returns to Jerusalem in power, bringing his people back with him as his reward, and caring for them as a good shepherd cares for his sheep.

What Isaiah’s talking about is, obviously, a wonderful and joyful moment: the Lord is coming to reveal his glory to the world by delivering his people from exile, and all will be well again. In Malachi, however, the picture is much less joyful. The Lord will send a messenger to prepare his way, and then he himself will appear; but rather than celebrating, the prophet asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” God will come to cleanse and refine his people, washing and burning away all their impurities. He will judge the wicked, those who do not fear him; and even for those who do, his coming will not be easy—it will be overwhelming.

There are certainly aspects to this passage that are clearly positive. For one, there is the assurance that the Lord does not change. Just as in Isaiah, it is made clear that God’s people will be preserved and can trust him to do what he says he will do, because he is faithful even if his people aren’t. He will purify his people so that their offerings are acceptable to him, and in the end, all things will be as they should be. His coming, however, will be a time of judgment as well as of rejoicing, and thus his herald will bring a message of warning and judgment as well as of promise and deliverance.

This is what we see in John the Baptizer, who came preaching a message that has been summarized as “Repent or else!” That’s probably an oversimplification, but it does go to the core of what John had to say; the gospel writers’ one-sentence version of John’s ministry is that he came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He called his hearers to radical repentance, to rebuild their lives from the ground up on the will of God, and challenged them to give away whatever they could to those in need. John’s central theme was that the Lord was coming as he had promised, and that people had better get ready; like Malachi, he emphasized that the coming of the Lord would bring judgment as well as joy. Those who repented of their sins and sought to follow him would be blessed, but those who refused would be destroyed.

The thing is, though, as Malachi points out, that even for the faithful, even for those who longed for the Lord’s coming, it would not be easy, and it will not be easy when he comes again, because he is coming to purify us—to complete the work of smelting away all the slag and the dross in our lives. “Who can stand?” the prophet asks? None of us. Not even one. The truth is in a line written by the singer-songwriter Sarah Masen: “The fool stands only to fall, but the wise trip on grace.” All we can do is cast ourselves on the grace of God, on the price paid for us by Christ on the cross; all we can do is lay all of ourselves at his feet and let him refine us and purify us until we can bear his joy, his love, his goodness, his holiness, his peace.

That’s not an easy thing to think about; but as you think about it, remember that he seeks to refine us like silver. Why is that significant? Well, it’s captured best by a story that’s told—I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve done some research and verified the details—about a group of women who were doing a Bible study on Malachi, of whom one made an appointment with a silversmith to watch him work. As she watched, he held a piece of silver over the fire to heat up, and he explained that in refining silver, it’s necessary to hold it in the middle of the fire, where it is hottest, in order to burn away the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot, and remembered that Malachi says that the Lord will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. He said yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver in place, he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver were left in the flames even a moment too long, it would be ruined. The woman was silent for a moment, then asked, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” The silversmith smiled at her and said, “I know it’s done when I see my face reflected in it.”

This, you see, is what Christ is doing in us; it’s the process we’re waiting for him to complete in our lives, and in the life of our world, when he returns, and it’s what he’s doing in us now as we wait, and through our waiting.


(Exodus 3:1-10Hebrews 11:24-28)

I said last week that Advent is a season of waiting—that it’s about waiting for God’s redemption, for his promised deliverance from the power of sin and death. It’s about learning to wait faithfully and patiently, trusting God to keep his promise; it’s about preparing ourselves to celebrate Christmas by using the time leading up to that celebration to examine our hearts and discipline our impatience. Especially in our broadband microwave instant-oatmeal society, it’s about stepping back from our culture’s emphasis on fasterfasterfaster and learning to slow down, to understand that just because God doesn’t give us what we want rightnow doesn’t mean he isn’t at work; it’s about learning to understand the work he does in our lives while we wait.

And it’s about learning to understand the importance of trusting God in the waiting, and for the waiting. The Exodus gives us a great example of that. You may remember the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, and eventually rose to power as the right-hand man of the Pharaoh, the king of that nation; and how in a time of famine, Joseph’s father and brothers and their whole household came down from Israel to live in Egypt. For a long time, this worked out well, and Joseph’s family grew into a large and flourishing tribe, known as the Hebrews; but then a Pharaoh came to power who hated and feared them, and made them slaves as the first step in destroying them. Moses was a Hebrew who had been raised in the palace as Pharaoh’s grandson, who fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was beating one of his fellow Hebrews, and who made a home with one of the nomadic tribes of the wilderness.

That’s the setup for our passage from Exodus: God putting his plan in motion to deliver his people from their slavery in Egypt and bring them back to the land he promised their ancestors. This would become, for the people of Israel, the definitive example of God’s deliverance, the original act which, above all others, defined them as a people and gave them reason to trust in God’s promises. When he brought them back from their exile in Babylon, that was seen as the “new Exodus”; the New Testament takes the “new Exodus” language of Isaiah and applies that to the coming of Jesus. We’ll talk some about all that next week. For now, the key is this: Pharaoh enslaved the people of God, and they cried out to him to deliver them, and did he swoop down right away and set them free? No. People were born in slavery and died in slavery. The Pharaoh who first enslaved them died, and his heir took the throne, and their slavery continued. But in the proper time, when everything was right, God acted, and they were set free.

And notice who he used. Moses grew up in the palace; he was a golden boy. He could have settled in to his position as royalty, turned his back on the people from whom he came, and joined the oppressors; certainly many, many people in his position would have done so, given the chance, and many throughout history have. He didn’t do that. Equally, if he was going to be the one to free his people from slavery, you might have expected that he’d do that from his position of influence, as one of the heirs of the man who held the reins of power. That didn’t happen either. Instead, he let his anger get the best of him, ruined the whole thing—or so it must have seemed at the time—and left himself no choice but to run for his life. Sure, his early life had seemed promising, but he’d squandered that promise, and now he’d spent forty years out in the wilderness tending sheep. He was a nobody, a has-been, a footnote to history. He was a sermon illustration in the temples of Egypt on what happens when you lose your temper. That’s all.

Except, Hebrews tells us, that he still had one thing: he still had faith in God, for whom he had chosen the side of his enslaved people over the side of luxury and privilege to begin with. He spent those forty years in the desert waiting, and maybe he still had ambitions or maybe he figured that he’d be a shepherd in the wilderness for the rest of his life, but he never stopped believing that God would be faithful to set his people free from their slavery in Egypt; and so when the time was right, God came to him and said, “Moses, I’ve chosen you to go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” To be sure, Moses argued with him, but in the end, he went and told Pharaoh to let his people go; and in the end, Pharaoh didn’t really, but God delivered them anyhow, with Moses leading the way.

There’s an important lesson in this, I think: when we’re waiting for God’s deliverance—from whatever we might need him to deliver us from—our waiting isn’t wasted time, and it isn’t unnecessary. It’s God preparing the ground, and preparing us—not only for our own deliverance, but to be his agent of deliverance for others as well. This is how he works, in this time between the times, when Jesus has come to begin the reign of God on earth but not returned to complete that work; he has left us in place here as his body, the body of Christ, his hands and feet through whom he works to carry on his ministry. What God is doing in us and for us isn’t just about us; as we wait for the answers to our prayers, he’s lining things up to answer them in the proper time, but he’s also preparing us to be the answer to other people’s prayers. We wait, not only for God to deliver us, but for him to work through us to deliver others; and even the waiting is part of his work.

Out of Chaos, Hope

(Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-21)

Your bulletins say, “First Sunday in Advent.” We lit the first Advent candle—a dark purple one. We began the service by singing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” And in all this, we’re doing something that, anymore, is completely foreign to our culture. As the essayist Joseph Bottum writes, “Christmas has devoured Advent, gobbled it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale. Every secularized holiday, of course, tends to lose the context it had . . . Still, the disappearance of Advent seems especially disturbing—for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to an-ticipate Christmas. More Christmas trees. More Christmas lights. More tinsel, more tas-sels, more glitter, more glee—until the glut of candies and carols, ornaments and trim-mings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America, Christmas itself arrives nearly as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long Yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.”

In considering this picture, and the escalating insanity of commercial Christmas, Bottum suggests that “maybe Christmas . . . lacks meaning without Advent.” That may sound strange, but I think he’s right. We live in a culture to which spiritual disciplines like self-denial are largely a foreign concept; to our society, the way to prepare to celebrate Christmas is by indulging ourselves in spending, consuming, and celebrating—shopping, throwing parties, shopping, decorating, shopping, eating, and more shopping. The problem is, that doesn’t prepare our hearts to celebrate, and still less to worship God; it just burns us out, leaving us sick of the whole thing. It essentially makes the celebration about the celebration—it makes it a matter of working ourselves up to the proper pitch of enjoyment just because everyone else is, and of making merry because we’re supposed to make merry—and that’s a very empty thing, with no substance to it, and really a very tiring one. Though the church tradition of preparing for Christmas with a season of reflection and self-examination and repentance is quite foreign to our world’s way of thinking, there’s a real wisdom to it if you stop and think about it.

Advent, if we take it seriously, disciplines our anticipation and the emotions that go along with it, in part at least because it focuses our attention on just why we look forward to Christmas; as Bottum puts it, it “prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.” After all, the message of Christmas is that the light shines in the darkness—which means we need to understand the darkness if we really want to understand the light. We need to understand the darkness not just in our world, but in our own lives, to really appreciate what it means that through Jesus Christ, God has caused his light to shine in our hearts. We need to look at sweet baby Jesus wriggling in a bed of straw, cooing and sucking his fist, and realize that that fat little hand is the same hand that scattered the stars across the night sky—and the same hand that reached down and formed the first man out of riverbank clay—and that he comes to us as God’s cosmic Answer to sin and death. Which means that if we’re going to take Christmas seriously, we need to begin by taking Advent seriously.

To do that, we need to begin by facing and accepting the reality that this world is neither what we want it to be nor what it was meant to be, and neither are our lives. It wasn’t always this way. God created the world good, in harmonious order, blessed with everything necessary for life. He made us in his image and gave us the world to manage and care for, to tend and steward for its benefit and our own; he created us for relationship with him, to know him and love him as our Creator and ultimate Father. All he asked of us in return was to accept his authority—to accept that he’s God, and we’re not. What was the first temptation? “Do this and you will be like God. You won’t have to trust him to tell you what’s right and wrong—you’ll be able to decide that for yourselves.” You will be like God. Why was that the first temptation? Because the keystone of the created order was, and is, that God created everything and rules over everything, and all of his creation finds its proper place under his authority. To disobey, to reject his authority, was to break that order and plunge creation into chaos.

With that first act of rebellion, sin and death entered the world. By that, we don’t mean death as loss of physical existence, or at least not merely that; we can see that in both our passages this morning. When Adam and Eve disobey God, they continue living in the physical sense—but they are expelled from the presence of God, for he cannot tolerate their sin. Whether physical immortality in this world was part of God’s initial plan is not the concern here; the concern, rather, is with the effects of sin, and with death as a corrosive power that eats away at life as God created it. The concern is with sickness and corruption, and with the shattering of the harmony between us and each other, ourselves, the created world, and above all, God. He created order and life; we traded that in for death and turned the forces of destructive disorder loose on the world. That’s what Moses and Paul are concerned about, not lifespan, when they tell us that sin and death entered the world through one human act.

That’s the reality of our existence in this world. Adam sinned—and notice, though Eve was the first to disobey, he gets the greater blame; his was the decisive act that confirmed her disobedience and sealed both their fates—and he left us to inherit the mess; he left us a legacy of brokenness, guilt, disorder, shame, and death. People have tried to pretend otherwise, but their efforts have never gotten them (or anyone else) anywhere. We’ve seen all sorts of arguments that human beings are basically good, insisting that all our problems are really the product of economic inequality, or social pressures, or repression of sexual desire, or other bugaboos of that sort; there would seem to be a lot of philosophers and writers who are firmly convinced that we wouldn’t do bad things if we didn’t have authorities running around telling us “No!” Some of them have managed to convince a lot of people they were right; but for all their followers and all their influence, what they haven’t managed to do is set even one person free from sin. And though the disciples of folks like Marx and Rousseau have launched a few revolutions, they haven’t managed to create even one sinless society—just several of the worst and bloodiest tyrannies this world has ever seen.

Paul wouldn’t have been surprised by that. He points out in verses 13-14 of Romans 5 that even before the Law came to tell us what not to do, the world was still full of sin, and death still reigned everywhere. Indeed, he says, it was only when the Law came through Moses that things started getting better—but that doesn’t mean the Law was enough. It could point people in the direction in which they ought to be going, and tell them how they ought to live, but it couldn’t make people want to go that direction or live that way, and it couldn’t give them the ability to do so. In the chaos of a fallen world, it was merely a blueprint for order; in the pathless darkness of our sin-shrouded existence, it was a dim light and a road map, but nothing more.

As Genesis 3 makes clear, however, God had no intention of stopping there; the Law was a necessary part of his plan, but it was only one part. He didn’t tell the serpent who had tempted his people into sin, “I’m going to give them laws to follow”; no, he said, “One of this woman’s descendants will arise and crush your head.” He promised that someone would come who would undo the harm that had been done. And so he raised up Abraham and said, “Through you all the nations of the world will be blessed”; and so he grew Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, and began to tell them of the Messiah who would come, his chosen one whom he would send to redeem the world. Into the chaos of this fallen world, he spoke promises of hope, of one who would lead us out of the chaos; to us who live in the darkness of sin, he promised to send the Light of the World, the Son of Righteousness risen with healing in his wings, as Malachi says, to set us free from the darkness forever. And so the world waited, through long, weary years, for God to keep his promise.

That’s what Christmas is all about: God keeping that promise. And it’s what Advent is all about, too: remembering the wait, remembering that he was faithful to keep that promise, as we wait for him to finish keeping it when Jesus comes again. It’s about the fact that God didn’t leave us to darkness and chaos, but all the way back at the beginning, he gave us reason for hope; and that though this world waited a long time for God to keep his promise, in the proper time, he kept it, sending us his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. And in that, it points us to the truth that as we wait for his deliverance in one area or another of our life—for victory over a sin that troubles us, perhaps, or for healing of a physical or emotional problem, we can wait with confidence that God will not let us down. He may not give us exactly the answer we’re asking for, but he will give us what we need—because he gives us, because he has already given us, himself.