For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this. – Isaiah 9:6
Six and Seven year-olds massacred in Newtown, CT. Others randomly shot in a mall in Oregon. Dozens of other headlines highlight less spectacular bloodshed in your hometown newspaper. It appears there is no end in sight. Random wickedness and brokenness are also your problem in your otherwise safe pocket of the world. Evil is local and apparently sustainable. It seems to be everywhere and affecting everything. Though the topic of evil is often suppressed and psychologized in our public discourse, it persists.
Less dramatic, but equally as personal, is your neighbor who actively dreads the holidays at the dysfunctional home of his youth. How do you avoid the curse on your hometown when every town is rife with the same brokenness and fear? The dread of the family that fell painfully short of the ideal: bitter divorce, fatherlessness, selfish people living selfish lives with deep wounds of rejection. Look around. This is where we’re from, but it’s not where we want to live. We find ourselves in grief and fear longing for peace and comfort. Like a hip out of socket we are limping. We are hurting.
Meanwhile, buried deep within the lines of a familiar carol springs:
“Fear not then,” said the Angel,
let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Savior
Of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.
O Tiding of Comfort and Joy
Comfort and Joy.”
THE TENSION BETWEEN THE ADVENTS
Advent, or coming, is a less familiar latin term referencing the historical fact that God took on flesh and dwelt amongst us in the person of Jesus from Nazareth. He came to do battle with death. He came to reconcile predator and prey. He came, we are told, to bring peace, hope, joy, and love to the world. Impressively Jesus dealt with both the penalty and the power of sin in his first coming. We can be justified, are declared righteous, and are empowered to live righteously in the power of the Spirit he sent for us. However, we are not yet saved from the presence of sin. Even the faithful are tempted to ask, “Must we continue to sing the songs of universal peace, a few days earlier each year, while their promise is still largely unrealized?”
Advent is the first installment of two comings. The scriptures reveal that God will again inhabit earth in flesh. Jesus will come again and when he returns, comprehensive salvation is coming with him. In the early 20th century, Princeton Theologian Gerhardus Vos coined a helpful and scripturally consistent phrase to capture the present tension between the advents: “the already/not yet.” Vos observed that much of the good we seek is resident with believers after Christ’s 1st Advent. While at the same time, aspects of God’s promises are still future and won’t be experienced until the 2nd coming, or advent, of Christ and the culmination.
The ‘already’ looks like things put back in socket. New people come to faith and see their lives renovated by Christ. Marriages are restored. Kids grow up strong with parents that love them consistently and sacrificially. Gospel words are shared where there was once legalism or license. Communities rally to meets the needs of the vulnerable. Merriment and good cheer not only at Christmas but all year. Beauty all around.
But all is not as it should be, at least not yet. The ‘not yet’ is devastatingly tangible for the 40 parents of deceased 1st graders in Newtown. ‘Not yet’ is the unrest that all of us feel after such an event. Not yet are the masses who consciously live for self, forsaking the cost of love and community. Not yet are our cities full of single moms, shut-ins. sex traded children, and the scores of people who couldn’t care less.
Most Christmas seasons are a bundling of good news and bad news, celebration and mourning–the ‘already’ with the ‘not yet.’ We live between advents and we live in tension. With a good bit of joy and lingering pain.
Our waiting for the completion of joy and elimination of grief is filled with questions about closing the gap. What should we expect the pace of restoration to be like? Are we naive to wish for sweeping reforms and more comprehensive change in our lifetime? Is there anything I can do to make it come faster?
We are certainly too cynical if we assert “this is just the way life is” when we are privy to in the first Advent and the now massive fork it has created in the human narrative. The gospel is still the power of God to save all who believe and we know that God is competent and thorough (Romans 1:16). Peter reminds the believer of a living hope, a salvation ready to revealed in the last time. There is much more to come and it is better than what has gone before it (1 Peter 1:5).
EXPECT BIGGER GOVERNMENT
Jesus. Messiah. Baby. Daddy. Prince of Peace. The King and his rule. A wonderful Counselor with the strength to pull it all off, forever.
The kings who conquered Jerusalem always began in Zebulun and Naphtali, in northern Israel, in route to Jerusalem. Jesus was no different. He began his kingdom reign in the north, in Galilee. He started his quest by calling men to himself, teaching with authority, casting out demons, and generally reversing everything that was broken in his little corner of the world all the way to Jerusalem. It was there he died for peace and rose again for everlasting peace.
Yet, the promise found in Isaiah 9 was for an increase of his government and of a peace without end. So, what started small like a mustard seed grew and turned one nation upside down before going viral through Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. His kingdom continues to expand. Jesus and his ever increasing government means more is “already” and less is “not yet.” While local tragedies devastate us and obscure our line of sight, we do well to span out and recognize the broader movement of God. Justice and righteousness is intermittently experienced and universal flourishing is coming.
Promises are made to be fulfilled. The God who makes them is more real than the present tragedy. His faithfulness in the past and his promises about the present age of the Spirit and the future age to come are enough to give us strength and perspective.
This past year, I have watched first-hand as two drug addicts came to know Jesus. From where they sit, the Kingdom has indeed come and is mostly ‘already.’ To contrast where they were with where they are now overwhelms them with optimism. The world is not as dark as it used to be. They are not as broken as they used to be. Things seem to be getting better. Christ’s rule appears to be expanding in all kinds of creative ways as they find themselves in God’s family and on his mission. They are contagiously hopeful in Christ’s work.
But who is right? The emotions we experience after the Newtown massacre or the hope of the newly redeemed? Life between the Advents argues they are both right. Christ brings comfort in the ‘not yet’ and joy in the ‘already.’
Chances are your neighbors are struggling this holiday season with the stories on cable news, the obligatory visit home, or the broken stuff that they have just come to accept as normal human life. So, they might get drunk with more regularity. They might cry but tell no one. These are real people, across your street who see the massacre in Newtown turned way up, and any sense of tangible hope muted. If you know Jesus you have the opportunity to bring more balance to the conversation.
Be a hope-dealer this Advent. Hit the streets. Move some product. Get the word out. Because God did come softly to earth as a baby, lived obscurely as a servant, and died unjustly in our place, we have hope to deal. Because, his love is so capable and his Kingdom so forceful, we can hope for better–much better. We hope in the present and in the perfect future that the scriptures continue to insist are already a sure thing.
This is good news to your struggling neighbor. Will you invite them into the alternate narrative God is writing with your family? What will you give her? What will you say to him? Who will you hug? How well will you listen? What will you pray? How will you speak honestly this Advent to the reality of the pain and the reality of the resurrection?