Advent 2014: What To Do With The Waiting?

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There’s something about Advent that feels paradoxical to me: it’s a time of beginning as the Christian year restarts, and yet it immediately pauses as we’re called to wait not only for the festivities of Christmas but also the final fulfilment of God’s Kingdom. The impatient, non-liturgical part of me thinks everything should start on December, but no, there’s a four week countdown instead.

But then why shouldn’t there be a pause, a time of preparation? After all, the stable is the entrance to the roller coaster: look at the baby, sure, but once we do that we’re pushed onto the road to Easter and all the highs and lows and excitement and screaming along the way. Advent gives us time to prepare; Advent gives us space to hope. It’s a season to remember the first and second comings of Christ, but one of those happened a long time ago, the other at an indeterminate point in the future. Maybe the holy pause of Advent gives us space to reflect on what it means to live between those two points.

Because the liturgical needs to be practical. Jesus in the manger and Christ on the throne can’t be abstract concepts. We need to figure out how they relate to the mess of day-to-day life. If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to focus on just getting through the day without yet another microcrisis erupting and bigger questions get sidelined. But that’s a false dichotomy, isn’t it? If Jesus is with us and Jesus is king, then day-to-day life is lived out within a sacred Kingdom, a Kingdom focused on healing and restoration and resurrection and hope. It’s not a time to be lulled to sleep.

So what does it mean to be the Church in the face of food banks and Ferguson, institutional sexual abuse, fear of immigration, homelessness, war, poverty and plague…? Big questions, no easy answers, but nevertheless, we need to wrestle with the uncertainties. We also need to wrestle with our complicity.

Because Advent should be a time of justice, hope and expectation of a greater Kingdom, but also a time of repentance. To repent literally means to turn around, and sometimes that takes time, an ocean liner of our baggage slowly turning to avoid a catastrophic iceberg. The Church has not always been innocent, has very often failed to be holy, and that history may make it difficult for us to know what we’re supposed to look like.

But the answer to that is deceptively simple: we’re supposed to look like Jesus. After all. Advent doesn’t so much point to moments in time but to a Person, and if we’re supposed to reflect that Person to the world, maybe we need to pray that this Advent is transformative. I know I need that.

So does the world.

Those Who Stayed (The Book of Esther)

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Look, I admit it – I have a degree in history but I’m useless with dates. I don’t remember who ruled when, I can’t keep in my head whether various empires coexisted or if they succeeded each other, or… Well, let’s just say I’m more reliant on Wikipedia than I should be.

So when I read a post from Covered In His Dust this morning, I was shocked. I’ve always lumped together the books talking about the Jewish exile into Babylon as one cataclysmic event followed by a difficult but triumphant homecoming. And that’s entirely my fault because I don’t read books like Ezra and Nehemiah enough.

In reality, the deportations to Babylon took place in waves, as did the return home. And then there were Jewish communities that decided to stay in Babylon and Persia, less exiles and more immigrant communities; long-established communities at that. After all, the Book of Esther is set almost a century after the final wave of deportations and around fifty years after the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem.

So Esther’s story is set among an established Jewish community, where her uncle Mordecai is a respected member of the local elite. For whatever reason, their great grandparents chose to never return to Jerusalem, and so suddenly this changes from the story of a group of exiles to an exposé of the cracks in a community.

I guess we should see that coming: the heroes of the text are from the Tribe of Benjamin and descents of Saul; Haman, the antagonist, is descended from Agag. The central conflict is almost a replay of 1 Samuel 15. Mordecai, Esther and Haman may be a long way from their ancestral homelands but history never really goes away. And those historical tensions threaten to explode into genocide in Esther’s present.

But we see things from the perspective of those being threatened, those with their neighbours turning against them due to the machinations of a power-broker with an axe to grind. Mordecai may be respected, but he’s still a part of a minority community threatened with violence, and while we call Esther ‘queen’, let’s not romanticise that – she’s drafted into a harem because she’s a hot virgin. It’s difficult to fully read the Bible from a position of power because so much of it is written from the perspective of the oppressed, and because God is on the side of the oppressed.

Now, I’m writing this blog as a white guy in a nice house in the UK. Stories like Esther’s help remind me that I’m not exactly first in line when oppression is being dished out.

But things like immigration and race relations are hot button topics at the moment, and you don’t have to read or watch the media for long before the scapegoating and the stereotyping become evident. And in the midst of this, we need to ask ourselves whether we’re listening to the voices of immigrants, of minority’s communities, of those lacking in the privilege of those controlling public discourse?

Because even if we’re not, God is..

Christ the King (Revelation 5)

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The Bible, rich with symbolism, paints many pictures of kings and kingdoms, some of them nightmarish and bizarre; huge, grotesque monsters emerge from the ocean to dominate the earth, their armies sweeping across the globe like so many twisted, mutant locusts. It’s fair to say that, when it comes to kins, the Bible is ambiguous to say the least.

And yet despite this, there’s an image of kingship that is both simple and earth-shattering in its implications. It appears in the midst of Revelation’s monsters and mayhem, but it’s far from being part of that chaos – the opposite in fact.

We’re introduced to the ultimate king, the holy king, the good king, and while all the other empires have been described with imagery from a Japanese monster movie, the great king is actually a lamb – a slain lamb at that. And I think we’re supposed to react to the contrast, be thrown for a moment at the apparent power differential – Godzilla vs a lamb? What’s going on here?

And then we remember that the lamb on the throne is Jesus, and all our categories for power and kingship and empire have to change in the face of a bleeding sacrifice that nevertheless sits on a throne and is worshiped by multitudes of angels. It’s an image that should inform and subvert all our other images of Jesus: if he’s a king, then how does he rule? If he’s a warrior, whose blood is shed? The lamb on the throne helps answer those questions, even if those answers turn out to be a challenge.

But we can’t hide among metaphors: these images need to change what we look like in the here and now. After all, if we’re inhabitants of a different Kingdom, we should echo a different king, and that affects how we think about everything, from our politicians, to the people next door to the wildlife that surrounds us. All of those interactions need to be rooted in Christ – not a cultural facsimile branded with a winking caricature of Jesus but in Christ the king, with discourse inspired more by the Sermon on the Mount than the media.

Today we remember the king on his throne, but we also remember that this king acted more like a servant than a warrior, and inaugurated his kingdom through death on a cross. Maybe today’s a good day to seek a vision for what that kingdom needs to look like in the life of each individual disciple.

Singing When You Don’t Feel Safe (Ephesians 5:19)

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Dr. Vincent Harding was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, a man who had boots on the ground during a time of great injustice, when faith involved things like not responding to physical abuse from racist police, when singing became an act of defiance against a violent world. Back in May this year, NPR broadcast an interview with Harding that stopped me in my tracks.

It was summer, 1964, and James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive among African Americans. One night they never returned home; this was KKK country and the bodies of the three students were found a day or so later.

The news reached Harding and a gathering of hundreds of other activists, whereupon a choice presented itself: risk falling foul of further lynch mobs or head home to safety. And as those gathered were making hundreds of life-or-death decisions, they started to sing.

Someone’s missing Lord, kum ba yah…

We all need you Lord, kum ba yah…

The way Dr. Harding tells it, the moment sounds sacred, a simple song becoming a profound intercession, an act of worship that takes place not as a corporate singalong but as a prayer, a cry to God to make himself known…. And this came through a song as simple and as often derided as ‘Kumbayah’.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, exhorted his friends to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” That’s easy to do when church is bursting at the seams and the music is cranked up to 11 and when struggle is far away or even imaginary. It’s a different story to sing in the eye of the storm.

But we can still sing in the darkness; sing as communities with shared experiences and fears and griefs and threats, and maybe those moments are when our faith and our worship are at their most honest. In the midst of grief and fear and with the enemy at the gate our easy words and ivory-towered theologies fall silent and all we can do is sing to each other and to the Immanuel God who stands alongside us. There’s something powerful about singing when we don’t feel safe.

I’ve said it before: our churches don’t always make enough space for lament, and we often feel pushed to pretend that ecstatic elation is our default setting, no matter what’s going on the other side of the stained glass window. Maybe the memories of Dr. Harding and the words of St. Paul remind us that worship can be found when there’s no other choice than to sing to each other; when hope and horror can be expressed through the words of a Kumbayah.