A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah
There’s a reason we must have Advent before Christmas. We must reckon with the dark if we are ever to be truly embraced by the Light. We have to know we’re in trouble before we have the good sense to cry out for help. We have to feel our aloneness in order to open up to the wide arms of grace. We have to know we’re lost in bad country before we gain the good sense to follow the God who leads us home.
Isaiah reminds us that God takes us through the wilderness, not around it. This is good news since life will, sooner or later, carry all of us into the rugged, isolated, despairing badlands. Eventually, all of us will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So here we are, waiting. Some of us are waiting alongside a grim diagnosis. Some of us are waiting while our family teeters on the brink. Some of us live in persistent anxiety, a low-grade fever of fear and tension. Some of us think where we are is all we’ll ever know. Some of us have surrendered hope. Some of us have forgotten the God who makes a way through the wilderness.
But God has come to us once in Jesus, and God will come to us in Jesus again. God has led the people through the wilderness once, and God will lead the people through the wilderness again. And again.
In a cynic’s age where suspicion and aloofness and religious detachment suffocate us, it’s an electric shock to the system when, on the first week of Advent each year, we read those wild-eyed prophets bellowing words so fiery they’d wake a corpse. Yesterday, Isaiah prayed a dangerous prayer: God, rip apart the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would tremble at your presence. The prophets believe that either God acts on our behalf, or we’re ruined. The prophets believe that we need God or we’ll die. The prophets, these Advent prophets, dismantle our cynical, sophisticated attempts to manage God.
It seems we need these wild voices to announce Advent to us. Otherwise, we’d only yawn and roll over and continue our delusions that we’ve got things mostly in control. But we don’t. Anyone with half an eyeball knows we’re in trouble. All of us are in trouble. This whole big thing we call the world is spinning off kilter.
And when we’re in trouble, when we’ve played our last card and we’ve got absolutely nothing left up our sleeve, then (maybe then) we come to our senses enough to turn to God and pray that beautiful, beautiful prayer: help. And in Jesus we find that God loves nothing more than to answer this honest ask.
But most of us keep working the angles, always imagining a new dream hand. The game’s done, and the dealer’s eyeing the door. But we’re crunching the numbers, refusing to see what’s plain as day to everyone else at the table. We haven’t really owned the fact that we’re finished; our best efforts have played out. We don’t see how desperate we are for mercy.
Advent, if we’ll have it, moves us back into reality. Advent tells us that without God we’re wrecked. But thankfully, Advent also tells us that God holds the cards. Advent assures us that God is always the God-who-is-Coming. Advent leads us into an abundance of mercy.
Some of us have surrendered to irreparable despair, a vortex of exhausted gloom that’s drained us of everything good, leaving only hopelessness and resignation as we withdraw into isolation. Some of us have succumbed to a swift-burning rage, an incinerating force that’s consumed our perspective on our common life and fueled an inferno charring every vestige of our joy, faith and goodwill. God knows there’s justification for either. These are troubled times. More senseless killing. More entrenchment. And the saddest thing: I could write this on almost any Monday; little would need to be altered.
Both of these responses, different as they are, seem to be the wounded responses of those of us who are overcome by futility. Are we so lost we will never be found? Are we, as a people, so collectively infested and diseased that we will never be healed? Perhaps we have crossed our Rubicon. Perhaps it is indeed the time to throw up our hands and retreat into our cultural silos and just finish out best we can. Or perhaps it’s time for the final, desperate measure: maybe we should light the torches and burn the whole thing down. Perhaps.
But surely you know me well enough to know I don’t believe that at all. I may flirt with capitulation and despair for a day or a week, but I’m a man of faith. I’m a man of hope. As Wendell Berry says, “The word ‘inevitable’ is for cowards.”
This is the hour when we need poets and storytellers and seers and wisdom-seekers, women and men of fresh imagination and steely courage, to walk out in front of us and show us another way. When we are locked into an intractable spiral of death, God inevitably sends us (and often from the margins) people who see a possibility we could not imagine, who envision a future that seems ridiculous. Their words pierce like a hot iron. Their life disrupts our certainties, reveals our foolish vision or commitments. Of course, we do not always listen or follow. Sometimes we refuse to see the new future as anything but a threat. Sometimes the One Who Shows Us The Way gets crucified.
Lord, we woke this morning to another wave of sorrow. More of us are dead. We had to tell our children, once again, of the evil we’ve done. We have to face another grieving day, added on top of all the other grieving days. We have tears. We have anger. We are hellbent on destroying one another. You’re going to have to help us see the truth. You’re going to have to give us courage to be something different. You’re going to have to help us. Amen.
In these heavy days, sometimes I find myself tempted by despair, wondering if maybe we’ve finally experienced our culture’s Andreas Fault. Maybe the cracks really are too deep and the destruction too crushing. Maybe the whole thing will break apart and we’ll just have to watch everything crumble and then pick through the rubble. How will we find our way back to one another? How will we mend all that is broken?
But I tell you the truth, when all the despair and the disintegration have played their oppressive hand, I inevitably find my way back to hope. I’m a goner; I do believe that goodness gets the final say, I do. I’m a man of faith. It’s the easiest thing in the world to wear the cynic’s hat, to finally give myself to suspicion of my neighbors (especially the ones I most dislike). It seems foolish to stand amid the raging furnace, insisting on kindness and gentleness, the courage to push against the evil even while maintaining an open heart to all of this world’s complex beauty, to each and every of this world’s beloved creatures. It does indeed seem foolish. But then, call me a fool. Like I said, I’m a man of faith. And being a man of faith and playing the fool are, at least in my experience, often close to the same thing.
So many words and actions on Saturday, so many words of repentance and sorrow and yes–hope on Sunday. But today I have no words. I’m trying to listen to God, and I’m listening to Mother Teresa. I do want to give the light of Christ.
“We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…Is not our mission to give God to the poor in the slums? Not a dead God, but a living, loving God. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within—-words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”
It’s likely, unfortunately, that you will hear of our little town on the news this weekend. After the trauma of a KKK group arriving for a rally last month, the White Nationalists and Alt-Right are coming from the 4 corners for a rally this weekend. They say they’re coming for a peaceful demonstration, but the ideology is anything but peaceful – and some of their videos and posters are truly disturbing. A number of groups have planned a variety of responses: from direct action at the park to education to community building to events to keep people away from the boiling cauldron. There’s been murmurings of subterfuge and violence from (what I hope are) fringe groups on both ends of the spectrum. From what I hear, the National Guard should be arriving Friday night. A tempest is brewing.
Though I would never want such a moment for my home, I’ve hoped that this chaos might yield a strange mercy, the opportunity to truly hear the pain of our neighbors, to own and then mend the ongoing effects of our beloved nation’s racism. However, I’m concerned that we run the risk of merely being hardened by the rage, that we might surrender the only true power that can yield heart-deep repentance and a genuine national healing. I fear that we might have given up on the transforming power of love.
I’m not talking about a wimpy, refuse-to-feel-the-weight love. I am talking about a love that defies the temptation to outrage-gone-violent (either violent actions or violent postures or violent words). I am talking about a love that refuses that old and tired but very powerful temptation to think in terms of enemies. I am talking about a love Dr. King knew when he said, “I have decided to stick with love; hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I am talking about a love that would stand with the oppressed while weeping for the oppressor. I am talking about a love that knows deep in the bones that if we don’t get to redemption together, then it isn’t redemption. I am talking about a love that sees in every single human a beloved sister or brother, a child, a parent, one who is more than their actions or ideologies, more than their fears. I’m talking about a love that would rather surrender a thousand arguments than dehumanize another beautiful person carrying God’s very breath in their lungs.
I’m talking about a love that would carry Jesus to a cross, a love that would empower Jesus to say, in what must have seemed the ultimate act of foolishness: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” I’m talking about a love that can melt a Roman guard to tears, can turn a crucified criminal into a friend, a love that promises to recreate the world.
Perhaps this seems like the zany musings of a dreamer, recklessly naive. So be it. I’m belligerently on the side of love. I’ve thrown my lot in with the dying, forgiving Savior. Surely this transformative love seems a pipe dream. But I remember them saying something similar just before Easter morning.
Words, like ideas, gain and lose cultural steam. Thankfully, one of the words and ideas on the rise is justice. For too long, it's been too easy to wallow comfortably in the notion of my private life, my individual well-being, with little thought for the well-being of others or for how justice for the oppressed, the poor, the abused, the forgotten is essential if we are to live in a way that could be called faithful. The prophets gives us a stern dose here. No one says it better than Micah, reminding us that we are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. But the idea flows all through the Bible, cover to cover. You can hardly open the Old Book without running into the call to pursue righteousness, and the word righteousness should often be translated justice. If we are to do what is right and shine God's redemptive brilliance into the world, then justice is a non-negotiable.
One thing worth noting from Micah is how the call to justice goes hand-in-hand with loving mercy. This is a discussion for another day, but suffice it to say that if our justice is absolutist and hard-edged and feels like a stranger in the land of mercy, then something's gone massively haywire. Justice may show us our sickness and triage us to stop the hemorrhaging, but mercy's required if we're ever to be healed.
However, the way we talk about justice these days, it seems that sometimes we're acting like justice is a force unto itself. Justice is not a stand-alone concept we arrive at by sheer brain power, ethical evolution and historical perspective — then hope to God we can figure out a way for Jesus to possibly fit in. Our commitment is not to some intellectual category we call justice; rather our commitment is to Jesus who is the Just One. Justice needs Jesus.
Justice needs Jesus because our attempts at justice, left to themselves (and especially when wrongs are not righted swiftly), usually find a magnetic pull back to some expression of the same violent or dehumanizing energies that inflicted injustice in the first place. We are not unjust because humanity has a few bad apples, but rather we are unjust because left to ourselves, we resort to power plays and violence and manipulation and enemy motifs to protect ourselves or to enact the world we believe in.
Justice needs Jesus because the powers of this world have no generative, life-giving resources on their own. "Everything that is good and perfect," James says, "comes from above, from the Father of lights who does not change like shifting shadows." Every single thing that is right and true and beautiful and good comes from God, everything else is only (at best) derivative of what is true or good or (at worst) some degradation or twisting of that which is true and good. Every ounce of love and healing that exists in the universe comes from the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ. God is love. The God who is love has revealed God’s own self through the first century Jew known as Jesus Christ. Justice as an ideal is very different from justice that is Jesus.
This doesn’t mean that someone needs to wear the Christian jersey to enact justice, not at all. In fact, often those who do not claim our faith reveal to us our own hypocrisy. However, all this does mean that whenever true justice happens, it’s consistent with the person of Jesus. Jesus defines justice – not us. No matter how noble or advanced or courageous our justice appears to be, if it doesn’t line up with Jesus’ way, it will ultimately, one way or another, end up inflicting harm. Justice is only possible in the world because God has made it so in Jesus Christ.
Justice needs Jesus because Jesus has uniquely and authoritatively disarmed the violent power games we humans play. Our justice often yields revenge or reverses the power dynamics or employs the notion of justice to atone for our sin or to deal with our shame. We thrive on the delusions of self-righteousness, the idea that we stand-in for justice and others stand-in for evil. And with our enraged "moral clarity," we divide the world in tidy sides and make the other to be an enemy, someone we can dehumanize. We play this game by clinging to our privilege or by bolstering our power. And we can do it even in our efforts to enact justice. Self-righteousness is insidious in the human heart. Most of us are desperate to justify ourselves, to show we’re on the right side—and it's so much easier to do that when someone else plays the part of the villain. And the violence and estrangement goes on and on and on…
Perhaps most of all, justice needs Jesus because God’s justice is not about evening the score or even merely wronging rights – but reconciliation. Paul tells us that the love of Christ compels us to reconciliation, to make friends of enemies, to envision a future beyond the enmity that fuels our outrage. There was once a Man who hung on the Empire's cross and endured the rejection of the religious powers. This man, with gasping breaths, cried out, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing." This is a strange, strange justice. This is a justice that requires Jesus.
Gaudí commenced construction on the Sagrada Familía, a Basillica in Barcelona, in 1882. They say it’s on target for its expected completion date: 2026. Gaudí died in a trolley accident in 1926 at the age of 73. Believing his work was for God, whenever someone chided him for the ridiculous time horizon, he’d answer: “My client is not in a hurry.”
I don’t know the answers to the many vexing concerns of our moment, but I think a good dose of Gaudí would at least be part of our way forward. We hear the wisdom encouraging us to be attentive to this one present moment (this conversation, this page of this book, this purple Climatis climbing our mailbox, this act of resistance) rather than frantically pressing and swerving toward whatever’s next–and this is absolutely true. However, to truly inhabit attentiveness to the beauty and responsibility of each single moment, we have to also trust the long view, trust the long story. I get the sense that Gaudí was able to enjoy each stone cut, each piece of marble laid, precisely because he knew the future was not his to control, that he was to do his part (and do it well, with real diligence, no shirking) but he envisioned a future that did not ultimately depend upon him. He would draw his blueprints and lay his portion of the edifice, but then other hands would take it from there.
The work before us is larger than us, larger than our lifetime. We have responsibility, but it is a responsibility born and worked out in mercy. We do not strain toward tomorrow. We do our good work today, and then we trust.
For lots of enlightened, sensible Christians, Pentecost is like the crazy uncle: he can tell some real barn-burner stories, but you sure as heck want him out of sight anytime company’s over. It’s easy to see why we’ve arrived here, with Acts’ wild images of the holy tempest blowing and the fire dancing on heads, not to mention the zany circus show you land on with late-night televangelists.
However, Pentecost tells us the story of how Jesus’ promise to bring heaven to earth is happening now, right in front of us. The Holy Spirit’s wind arrived “from heaven,” and it blew right past all the inhibitions, all the religious resistance. God decided it was time to send a shockwave of mercy, hope and renewal; and so the Spirit came. And life exploded. Grace erupted. In a matter of hours, those who’d been sworn enemies were locking arms, those who’d been rejected were welcomed like long lost family, those who didn’t have two pennies to their name were all of the sudden eating like kings. When Heaven arrives on earth, it can look lots of different ways, but it always looks at least something like this.