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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent Meditation, 2016

I don’t normally make much of a to-do about Advent, Christmas, or other holidays in the so-called “Christian Year”.  My Reformed tradition (commonly called “Calvinistic”) seeks to limit its cultic observances to what can be found or deduced by “good and necessary consequence” from Scripture.  However, I’ll nod away from the Puritan branch of the family towards the Swiss, and note with the Second Helvetic Confession (1564), that those holidays focused on the events of Christ’s life, are in themselves indifferent, if not made binding on the consciences of believers. 

The Advent tradition calls on Christians to focus on prophecy, both that related to his first coming as Messiah of Israel, and his second, in which he will judge the living and the dead.  Hence, after an adult Sunday School class that went through Samuel and Kings, books which the Jewish tradition sees as the Former Prophets, the Advent text on which I am now meditating  is  Matthew One, with all of its begats and Old Testament names (given according to the Greek Septuagint, for those who don’t recognize King James’ Ezekias and Hezekiah as the same man).  It’s a reminder that all of God’s actions in human history, including how he became man, worked redemption, and conquered death itself, were for the sake of flesh-and-blood, living and breathing, ordinary human beings.

First, individuals matter.  The genealogies tell us that humanity is not some abstraction called “society”, or “mankind”, or, in this anti-sexist world, “humankind”.  Names point to individuals, each of whom has his own little story and needs.  Maybe this is confusing to an age, overwhelmed by the vastness of space, wonders how God can worry about little specks such as us.  If that describes you and me, we’re in good company:  the Psalmist David himself wondered along similar lines when he wrote:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?  And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3-4)

Second, history matters.  Part of everyone’s humanity—including that of Jesus, whom I confess to be God the Word incarnate as man—belongs to a community and has a history.  We didn’t choose to be born Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries; Abraham didn’t choose to be born in Ur of the Chaldees four thousand years before our time.  Even if, as biblical prophecy teaches us, we look forward to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (II Pet. 3:13), we cannot forget where we’ve been, and biblical religion tells us that if we do, we’ll lose sight of where we ought to be going.  We’re called not only to hope, but also to remember.

Third, damaged and derailed as individuals and their histories may be, Jesus came to save sinners.  “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool.” How, Brother Isaiah?  Matthew One tells us.

Jesus came and freely owned himself kinsman to Abraham and Isaac, who prevaricated with the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Philistine Abimelech out of cowardice and thus compromised their wives; with Jacob who defrauded his brother Esau; with Judah who committed incest with his daughter-in-law Tamar while thinking he was just finding a prostitute; with the fallen woman Rahab and proselyte Ruth; with adulterous, scheming King David who abused his power to put an innocent man to death; with backsliding Solomon, who despite all his God-given wisdom, allowed his foreign wives to lead him into coldness towards his own God; and all those unworthy descendants of David who ignored or persecuted the prophets, provoked God to righteous wrath, and thus got their people conquered and exiled to Babylon.  No, I cannot find the model of a holy and upright kingship or living image of the Messiah or an earthly picture of the divine throne in heaven as I read the Bible; only a dreary list of men who “waked in the way of Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.”

Yet, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brethren—despite all their issues, failures, and baggage.  It is for them, and us, that he became man, worked righteousness, suffered death on the cross, and rose from the dead on the Third Day.  So, if the sinless Son of God is not ashamed to call the likes of Judah, Rahab, Manasseh, and Amon kinsmen, there may be hope for issues-ridden people like you and me.

I was oh-so-subtly raised to justify myself against the accusations leveled by biblical prophecy.  If I would’ve called myself a Christian, I was at best an American Moralistic Deist.  Had I known more than bowdlerized versions of the Biblical stories way back when, I’d have thought, surely, had someone like me been around, Jeremiah wouldn’t have been dragged off unwillingly to Egypt by the rebellious people, and Zechariah the priest would not have been murdered before the altar by King Jehoash.  Of course, we’re more advanced than “those people” were (Bronze Age savages, after all—even if, for the sake of covering myself with my fellow pedants, the use of iron seems to have found its way into Israel around the time of Saul).  And, yes, had I known the story then, I’d have reacted like Clovis of the Franks, who said Jesus would never have been crucified had he and his men been around.   Oh, of course: I’d never have been a Caiaphas, a member of the mob that cried, “crucify him!”, and certainly not a Pontius Pilate, cynically asking “what is truth?” when the Truth itself was literally under his very nose.   Fat chance.

That incarnation, death on the cross, and resurrection happened for our sinful sakes precisely because we’re not our idealized, truth-loving, [self-] righteous selves.  We are indeed Judah and Tamar, Rahab with her scarlet past and fear of the invading Israelites, backsliding Solomon, and Amon and Manasseh.  We’re Caiphas and Pilate, too (think of that the next time you use the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed).   This season, let us not justify ourselves when challenged by what we read; but recognize ourselves for what we are in humble repentance and accept the gift of redemption which God offers in the Messiah.

Have a joyful Advent and Christmas season!

Seen your Bathsheba today, brothers?

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