After my first Advent/Christmas at the university Chapel where I used to preach, I noted that sermons during this season frequently received negative responses from some in the congregation. What’s the problem? Is not this a prelude to one of the Christian year’s most joyous seasons?
One person emerged after I had preached at the Advent service at another University Chapel and accused me of “promoting irresponsible passivity” in my sermon. “You should remind us,” he said, “We are educated, responsible people who have been given the gifts to make the world a better place.”
Yet what was I to preach, stuck as I was with the repeated Advent gospel assertion that God really has come in Jesus Christ to do for us what we could not do for ourselves? How could I calibrate the Hebrew scriptures’ prophetic announcement that history had again become interesting not because we had at last gotten organized but because God was moving among us. In short, my critic had gotten more than a whiff of eschatology and found its odor distinctly offensive to his activist, educated, progressive sensibilities. He, like most of us, would rather get better than be born again. He like most of us, wants a world improved rather than made new.
Advent is the season of “the last (Greek: eschatos) things,” a time of winter death in nature, the ending of another year. Yet it is also the beginning of the church year, a time of birth at Bethlehem, a time when we know not whether to name what is happening among us as “ending” or “beginning” for it feels both as if something old is dying and something new is being born.
Christian eschatology, like Jewish eschatology before it, makes a claim about the future in which the Creator of the world at the beginning is fully revealed as the world’s Redeemer at the end. Eschatology is more a matter of Who? than When? “The end” is not so much a matter of chronology (When?) but rather a debate over who, in the end, is in charge. The hope for the coming of Christ in fullness (Christ’s Parousia) has nothing to do with the hope engendered by wishful thinking, a positive mental attitude or creative social programming.
Advent promises us that, when all has been said and done by God, in us as individuals, in our political/social/economic structures, in the whole cosmos, God will reign. What God is doing among us, for us, often despite us is large, cosmic, political, nothing less than “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).
Our individual hope is grounded in the promised cosmic dismantling and reconstructive transformation which God is doing in the whole world. John Howard Yoder was pointing to the eschatological nature of our hope when he suggested that the word “revolution” was a bit closer to the root meaning of euangelion than merely “good news” The good news of Advent is that we are being met, reconstructed by a God who intends to make all things new.
President Bush stood before congress and, paraphrasing a beloved old hymn, said, “there is power, wonderworking power in….the good American people.” That’s not what Christians believe.
More than likely, Advent eschatology offends us for more mundane reasons. I am at church seeking personal advice for how to have a happy marriage or how to get along with the boss next week, only to have Advent wrench my gaze in our subjectivity in its insistence that whatever God is about in the Advent of Jesus, it is something quite large, quite cosmic, quite strange and humanly unmanageable, something more significant than me. I am not the master of history.
So let us begin with the honest admission that our real problem with these Advent/Christmas texts is largely political and economic. Tell me, “This world is ending. God has little vested interest in the present order,” I shall hear it as bad news.
However, for a mother in a barrio in Mexico City who has lost four of her six children to starvation, to hear, “This present world is not what God had in mind. God is not finished, indeed is now moving, to break down and to rebuild in Jesus,” I presume that would sound something like gospel. For her the Advent/Christmas message presages a revolutionary conflagration.
A great deal depends, in regard to our receptivity to these texts, on where we happen to be standing at the time when we get the news, “God is coming.”
It’s Advent. Let the revolution begin.
William H. Willimon