Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent I: What I'm Waiting For

Exiles in Babylon, L. Castelli
2700 years ago, in a period of disruption and deepening injustice, prophetic voices spoke out against dishonest leaders, corrupt business practices, oppression of strangers, misuse of workers. They warned of famine, drought, barren land, social upheaval, danger from all sides. The situation they described was bleak; the days beyond, they said, would be harder still.

But somewhere in the future, beyond the hardship and destruction, they foresaw a new leader, a righteous king, someone who would bring healing instead of harm, light instead of darkness. They spoke of a future day of justice, of plenty, when even the poor would have their own land to farm, their own homes to live in, when those who had been hungry would be filled with good things, when those who had oppressed would be brought low, and equity restored.

Hundreds of years later,in another time of disruption and injustice, in a time of almost global corruption and oppression, new voices spoke: angel voices, saying “The time is now.” “The promised one is coming.”

And a young woman from the edge, a powerless no one, found herself waiting as the angel’s voice took shape within her, then gave words herself to what she knew was coming:

Virgin of the Annunciation,
Fra Angelico, Florence, 1400s
“From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
   holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
   from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
   but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
   but has sent the rich away empty.”

Her son Jesus - the promised child, the “word made flesh,” strange man of love and kindness who faced down the powerful, welcomed the outcast, healed the sick, raised the dead – Jesus fulfilled some of the prophecies made, but not all. He brought healing, but not justice. He restored individuals, but not nations. He calmed the sea, but left the desert places dry.

He spoke of his kingdom as here, but coming. Now, and not yet.

So some rejected him. He was not the king they’d been waiting for.

And some accepted the partial kingdom and assumed that was all there was: individual salvation. Personal healing. A promise of eternal life, somewhere far away. The rest that was promised – justice, restoration, redemption of nations, lands, all things – too good to be true. Leave it for heaven.

Advent, these days of waiting for Christ to come, of remembering the weeks before his birth, is a time of longing. “Come thou long awaited Jesus, Come to set thy people free.” “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

We smother the waiting, the longing, in hurry: gift lists, parties to attend. Decorations, Christmas cards.

And we lose the connection between this time of disruption, unrest, injustice, and the promises made so many years ago.

Nativity, Fritz Eichenberg, 1954
But when we pause, we find the longing lingers: for a way of life more satisfying, more fair. For leaders more concerned for those they lead than their own financial gain. For a wise use of resources, that leaves the land more healthy than it started. For real community, real connections, honest conversation.

What am I waiting for this Christmas? What am I longing for?

I’m longing for those who claim the name of Christ to live as agents of his kingdom. There are some, faithful followers, using their gifts, resources, time, energy, to demonstrate the kingdom Jesus told us was unfolding among us. There are others who promote the agendas of greed, environmental harm, penalties to the poor, more and more power to the rich.

We pray, week after week, in churches around the globe, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” then hurry on our way with no thought of what that might mean, now, here, in this place we call home.

Isaiah prophesied seven hundred years before Christ:
   “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus, standing in the synagogue at the start of his years of visible ministry, read that passage, then told all listening: “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.”

But not all prisoners and oppressed were set free. Not all blind recovered sight. The poor are still waiting to hear the good news.

Jesus healing a leper, sketch by Rembrandt
I’m waiting for that. Longing for that.

And I’m waiting for those of us who follow Christ to live out the knowledge that while Jesus met, and meets, with people one by one, the intent was always to knit them into communities, families, the inter-woven, interdependent body of Christ, a visible community of light that extends around the globe, that reaches across time.

“Love each other,” Jesus said, again and again. And showed how to do it: touching lepers. Eating with sell-outs to the Roman regime. Allowing known prostitutes to touch him. Calmly crossing divides of race, religion, gender, to welcome and restore those who were rejected.

That’s what the church is supposed to look like. I see glimpses, now and then. But for the most part, the church is balkanized by race, politics, income level. Divided again and again over things like women in leadership, forms of baptism, liturgical nuance, exegesis of Genesis and Revelations.

Love each other? We look past each other – amputated body parts, ineffective in every way.

I long for Christians, myself included, to be real reflections of Christ. And I long for the church to be the church he had in mind. His body, a place of welcome, love, healing. I confess my own failings in these, and long for a community that will challenge me to do better.

And  yes – I long for, wait for, pray for Christ to come. I pray for him to come, to me, in me, through me, every day. And I pray for him to come to his church, his people, to be visible, to be known.

But I pray, too, for him to come again as the righteous judge, the king of glory, the great I AM. To set this mess right. To restore justice. To set the prisoners free.

What am I waiting for, this advent season? I’m waiting for the fulfillment of the vision of the prophets so long ago, working toward it now, longing for it later:

He will teach us his ways,
  so that we may walk in his paths. . .
He will judge between many peoples
   and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
   and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
   nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
   and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
   for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
Peaceable Kingdom, Fritz Eichenberg, 1950

This post is part of a monthly synchroblog, a group of bloggers posting monthly on the same theme. This month's theme: Jesus Is Coming: What Do You Expect? Other entries are listed below:
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