The Challenge of Advent

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

26 thoughts on “The Challenge of Advent

  1. 1 John 2:3-6 We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says, ‘I know Him’, but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys His Word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.


  2. Great post and I love your blog.I come from a group that new practices advent. The look down on those who do. I as a minister am just figuring out what advent is and excited about introducing preaching on it this year and slowy introducing it into the church by next year. I had a illness, was in ICU, and it changed my faith in a BIG way. I am excited about seeing others in a different light and seeing practices in a new light as well.God bless you brohter as you serve Him. May God bless you in many ways. You have life abundantly. Scott,How exciting brother.God bless you brother.Dr. Willomon,I have added your blog to my favorites and would be humbled for you to stop by any time and join any discussion. Again God bless you brother.


  3. Dear Doctor Willimon,Once again, you more than adequately draw the distinction between what we Lutherans call “the Theology of Glory”, and the “Theology of the Cross”. Indeed, you do so excellently!If it is ok, I would like to use this article, and the one citing the Lutheran pastor during World War II in our church’s newsletter.Godspeed!d†p


  4. According to some biblical scholars, the Advent focus on waiting and watching is anything but passive. It is keeping awake enough to be alert to and welcome the manifold saving actions of God in us and, as you so eloquently state it, in the universe–vis-a-vis the new creation. Adven Blessings,dimlamp


  5. I gasped when I read this. Frankly, I have – of late – been one of those people. I find myself searching for a message that will help me be a better person, mom, wife, citizen…I need Jesus to break in and do what I cannot do. I need something old to die and something new to be reborn. Reconstruction by a God who intends to make all things new. Thanks for making me wonder as I wander. 🙂


  6. (in response to ‘the Word made flesh’) I am in no way impressed by your bishopness, indeed rather distressed by it. But I like what you said about God still being able to surprise us. He is a living God, He will talk with us and walk with us if we will seek Him. And indeed he will surprise us and delight us when we get to know Him. Hebrews 7:18 The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect) and a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God. v 25 Therefore He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because he always lives to intercede for them.


  7. Dr. Willimon: I remember reading in the Christian Century a few years ago your favorite professor at Yale was one who took issue with the activism of William Sloane Coffin. Yet, my understanding of Yoder, and my sense of your repeated insinuations in your Advent Sermon is in this world we must act, even though I think I understand what you are trying to say to us with the reference to the Progressive detractor at Duke. So early in the new year, before the Primary in your homestate in South Carolina speak to this if you can. If we hear the plea of the Mother in the barrio, what do we do in Light of the Ryan Lizza report in the New Yorker from your stomping Ground in Upstate South Carolina that immigration politics are being used to ill gain in this Presidential Season. And can’t we join with Mike Huckabee and John McCain on the Dream Act; can’t Birmingham Southern do something for relatives of the woman in the barrio who have made it to the United States, especially Hispanic students who do well in High School, that they may pursue their gifts through something like the Dream Act; and can’t you as a good Methodist say something to Jeff Sessions about it. Or have I completely missed the point about letting the Revolution BeginStephen Fox not far from the Barrio of North Alabama in Kilpatrick


  8. Hi William Willimon:I was thrilled to read your essay from 1997 regarding two teachers who absolutely had a great impact on my life: Mary Wilds and Sybil Vann! (I did not have the opportunity to study with “Miz” Tripp.)And I remember another teacher who also inspired me. Without telling me, she submitted some of my poetry to The Quill and it was published! What a nice surprise for me. I also remember one fine day when I was the only student in her class who was able to stand up and quote a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It had been our homework and I had been out sick for several days. She was mightily impressed by my interest and efforts. After that day I knew she respected me.Her name was Mrs. Willimon.Caroline


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  19. Dear William,Thank you for your deep and thoughtful posts. Your musings on the Advent and the Body of Christ have helped me, in my halfway position between evangelical and Catholic Christian, to grow in love for God and for the Church. I hope that God will continue to bless your work in your cell of the Body of Christ, and for the chance to meet you someday in eternity.God bless,Esther


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