What is Advent?
For the average evangelical Christian in America, the word “Advent” probably evokes the images and sounds of Christmas – a manger scene, shepherds, angels, the star of Bethlehem, wise men from the East, “Silent Night.” But if you were to follow the liturgical calendar using the Revised Common Lectionary, you’d find that the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent, which was last Sunday, was Matthew 3:1-12, a passage in which John the Baptist was chastening the religious leaders of his day:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7-10)
The gospel reading for today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Matthew 11:2-11, which zooms in on, among other things, John the Baptist’s imprisonment and faltering faith.
None of this is very Christmassy. But it is very… well, Advent-y. Why? Well, because Advent looks forward not only to Jesus Christ’s first coming (his birth), but also to his second coming and final judgment – when he will definitively establish his perfect reign of peace, justice, and righteousness over heaven and earth (Isaiah 9:1-7), wipe away every tear, and bring an end to war, evil, sickness, grief, incarceration, pain, and death (Rev. 21:1-8). This dimension of Advent is reflected in the New Testament reading for today as well, James 5:7-10: “Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”
Properly observed, Advent should function as a season for the people of God to reflect soberly on the hardship and reality of living in-between the two advents of our Lord – with our unfulfilled longings for justice, healing, redemption, and reconciliation; our grief over being separated from loved ones by death; and countless other forms of devastation caused by sin (our own and other people’s). It should be a stark contrast to the hype, contrived merriment, and commercial excess of the American Christmas season. As such, it ought to be a time of consolation and validation for souls weighed down by suffering and weariness. But too often, it isn’t.
So, how can we recover the true spirit of Advent?
John the Baptist: An Auspicious Beginning, A Tragic End
For the past two weeks, I’ve been studying the life of John the Baptist. I’ve found that it captures Advent’s mixture of anticipation, certainty, doubt, fulfillment, longing, despair, and hope like none other.
His life had auspicious beginnings as the fulfillment of an 800-year-old prophecy: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way – a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3). His existence was steeped in miracle, heralded through an angelic visitation to his father, Zechariah:
“He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.” (Luke 1:14-16)
After he was born, he “grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:80) His ministry, which called the people of Israel to repent and be baptized, drew large crowds. And it culminated in his baptism of Christ, when he got to witness the Holy Spirit descend from heaven as a dove and rest on our Lord (John 1:32). He was fearless, unafraid of speaking truth to people in power. His appeal to the consciences of the powerful and powerless alike laid the groundwork for the public ministry of Jesus, who said of him, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” (Luke 7:28)
And yet, his life ended tragically. He languished in prison for nearly two years, not because he committed a crime, but because in faithfully carrying out the ministry he was born to do, he drew the ire of Herod the tetrarch. I imagine at the time of his arrest, John was full of both righteous indignation and confidence that Jesus, whose coming had occupied his mind his entire life, would set things right. It’s evident in Matthew 11 and Luke 7, however, that as John sat in prison day after day and night after night, his confidence waned, and his faith began to falter. None of this surprises friends of mine who have experienced incarceration. They’ve told me that even brief periods of confinement and deprivation distort the senses, play tricks on the mind, demoralize, and loosen people’s grip on reality. It would have been particularly hard for John, a man accustomed to the wide open spaces and wild beauty of the Judean desert, to find himself confined to a dark, dank place where he undoubtedly experienced uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions.
We do know he was allowed visitors. It’s how he received news from and transmitted messages to the outside world. “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:2) Beneath that question was the whisper of other questions. If you’re the one, then why am I, the messenger who prepared the way for you, the one who baptized you, in here? Will you be calling the wicked man and my oppressor, Herod, to repent? Will you be coming to rescue me, to set me free? Or maybe just to visit?
Jesus’s response is, at first glance, an affirmation. “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7:22) But notice that he finishes with, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Luke 7:23) John would immediately have recognized the words in the first sentence as being from Isaiah 61:1 and 35:5-6, but he would also have noticed that Jesus left out Isaiah 61:2, the part that said he would bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, and release prisoners from darkness. The omission was significant because one of the first things Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry was read Isaiah 61:1,2 in the synagogue in Nazareth. And after he read it, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) But to John, he merely said, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.
I AM the one, John, and I HAVE come to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. But it doesn’t mean I’ll be setting you free from Herod’s prison or coming to ease your broken heart. I know this is difficult to accept, and I hope you don’t fall way on account of my decision not to come to you or intervene. All I’m going to tell you right now is that if you persevere in faith and hope despite this hardship, you will be blessed.
As far as we know, that was the final communication John received from Jesus before Herod’s niece/step-daughter asked for John’s head on a platter. Despite the grisly display before Herod’s dinner guests, John’s execution took place privately inside the prison, well away from the gaze of the people who recognized him as a prophet and would have mourned his death publicly, perhaps to the point of revolt. It was a capricious, macabre, and shadowy end for a person of such public spiritual significance to the nation of Israel.
The Ache of Advent
When I look at Jesus’s response from John’s vantage point in prison, it feels hard. It feels like abandonment. This is the point at which people attempt to assuage the uneasiness this triggers by reaching for verses like, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And yet, that feeling of abandonment by God is something I have felt and witnessed numerous times. I witnessed it when my friend’s twenty-two-year-old son died of cancer despite the fervent prayers of his family and an entire church community. I witnessed it when my former classmate, a faithful believer and sweet soul, died from complications of a hemorrhagic stroke, leaving behind a three-month-old baby and a husband. I witnessed it when, despite eight months of prayer and advocacy, an immigration judge signed a deportation order for the breadwinner father of a family I know, putting his wife and children at risk for destitution, homelessness, and further familial separation. I felt it when I stood up for a victim of abuse, and it cost me my community of faith. I have also felt it in moments when I’ve been overcome by either PTSD anxiety or intense physical discomfort in the middle of the night.
In John’s case, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that Herod later became instrumental in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion (Luke 23), the event in which he fulfilled his role as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) – the event that, along with his resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, enabled him to send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7) into the world to begin gathering his church from every tongue, tribe, and nation and advancing his not-of-this-world kingdom. Herod, corrupt as he was, had been allowed to remain in his royal position long enough to set in motion the events of Passion week – the events that would guarantee the future return of the triumphant Christ.
Early on, John had identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In the Jewish mind, such language would have evoked images of Passover, of the blood of sacrificial lambs painted on door frames – blood that would have signaled to the angel of death to pass over those households. But he could not have imagined or foreseen the way in which Jesus would actually become the sacrificial Lamb of God: as the victim of an unjust, torturous, public execution at the hands of the oppressive Gentile empire while his very own people shouted, “Crucify him!” His mind could not have grasped the cosmic significance of what Jesus would do. Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t even grasp it.
The crucifix was a thing of horror, an instrument of shame and dehumanization, a demonstration of what unchecked political power could do to the image of God. But in the greatest act of divine paradox, when the Son of God subjected himself to death by crucifixion, he disarmed the powers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, and triumphed over them by the cross. (Col. 2:15) By enduring the cross, he scorned its shame (Heb. 12:2) and secured victory over death. We know this because Christ was resurrected. (1 Cor. 15:20) And because he was resurrected, we know that death does not have the final say. “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:21,22,26)
We don’t have the benefit of hindsight for our own hardships the way we do for John’s. And like him, as finite creatures trapped in time, space, and a fallen world, we also cannot imagine how God will accomplish good things in the future on our behalf, even after our lives on earth end. But we do have something John did not: the benefit of knowing about the crucifixion and resurrection and what they mean for us. We live with a much greater degree of revelation than John did. Like John, of course, we often find ourselves looking to Jesus to be the triumphant Christ in our immediate circumstances. We long for relief from our misery. We’re desperate to be spared the grief and terror of death. We want to see evil defeated. Now. Today.
This is the ache of Advent.
The Mystery of Suffering
There’s plenty of evidence that the kingdom of God continues to advance as we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and labor for good in the world. People are miraculously healed, unjust systems are incrementally improved, broken relationships are restored, addicts are delivered from bondage, evil regimes come to an end, mercy and justice break through. But in some ways, it’s precisely the fact that we’ve seen these wonderful things happen that it’s extra painful when a young person’s life is prematurely taken by disease or violence, a vibrant person’s life is claimed by mental illness, a marriage succumbs to divorce, an abuser isn’t held accountable, and the vulnerable endure sorrow upon sorrow. Why, Lord, did you heal that person but not this one? Why did you spare this person from anguish but not that one? Why did you heal that marriage but leave mine in shambles? Why did you stop the wrongful state execution of that man but not this one? Why do you allow this evil to continue unabated?
We’re plagued by a nagging desire to know exactly what God is up to and why, obsessed with finding the reason behind everything. We wonder if there’s an algorithm, and if so, whether we can decode it. We have a low tolerance for mystery. We prefer certainty, predictability. I think it has to do with the way our first parents sinned – by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Since then, we’ve been afflicted with an insatiable desire to know and demystify things apart from divine wisdom and guidance – to grasp at things for which we lack capacity. We want all the answers all the time. We even approach and appropriate the Bible as if it were a manual or encyclopedia of reasons instead of the living Word that invites us to enter into the fathomless mysteries of God.
But is it really a consolation to say that Herod’s essential role in Christ’s crucifixion was the reason John was left to suffer and die at his hands? Scripture never reduces God’s role to a utilitarian one, as if he were a chess player moving pieces around a board. If we’re focused primarily on discerning God’s reasons for everything he does, we’ll miss the fact that God is intimately present with us in our suffering. The life and death of Jesus Christ is a permanent reminder that God suffers with us. As a sinless deity who made himself nothing so that he could walk this sin-scorched earth in human form (Phil. 3:7), he suffered every day of his life. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. (Isa. 53:3) We see this in the story of Lazarus’s death. Jesus had command over death, and as one who did, he could have simply uttered detached theological assurances to Martha and Mary; instead, when they wept with grief, he wept with them and for them. (John 11:35) To avoid succumbing to compassion fatigue and injustice fatigue, he withdrew from the crowds often to pray alone. And when he received word of John the Baptist’s death, he withdrew privately by boat to a solitary place. (Matt. 14:13) It was not the response of an unaffected game master.
As one who is deeply acquainted with suffering, Jesus honors our suffering: “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Ps. 22:24) It’s further evidenced by the fact that 70% of the Psalms God gave us are songs of lament. They provide the language we use to connect with him out of the depths of our suffering – the language of complaint, misery, despair, abandonment, anger, and even hope.
Faith and Hope: The Disciplines of Advent
Living in-between Christ’s two advents means that sometimes, we’ll see evidence that his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. And other times, we’ll experience the heartache of still being subject to death and evil, of the reality that on this side of the resurrection, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”(Matt. 5:45) The world is a painful place, sometimes dreadfully so, and God’s ways are shrouded in mystery. But as those who have received news of Christ’s death and resurrection, we’ve received enough to know that God’s ways are also steeped in goodness, wisdom, compassion, justice, and power. We can’t always see evidence of that (there often seems to be evidence of the opposite), but like John, whatever we’re unable to discern of his goodness, wisdom, compassion, justice, and power, we lay hold of by the disciplines of faith and hope. “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (1 Cor. 13:12)
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.