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Isaiah 64:1-9

Even in a secularized Western world, the word “Christian” still functions as a normalized, domesticated artifact of the era seemingly dominated by “Christianity,” whether in the form of a “state church” or of a less governmentally authorized “Christian culture.” The behaviors suggested by the ordinary word “Christian” are still colored by what was once expected. Some of those are obnoxious behaviors (dogmatism, intolerance, bigotries of various kinds), but many are much more gentle and polite and still desirable (cheeriness, niceness, generosity). Neither the obnoxious nor the desirable, however, provides a glimpse into what the gospel calls for. The gospel certainly calls for love and forgiveness, for hope and encouragement, and the gospel takes very seriously the damage we do to one another, the life-draining commissions of harm and omissions of help, but it does so remembering that it is justice/righteousness that we are to pursue and injustice/unrighteousness that we are to oppose. And the gospel remembers that this this righteousness/justice is often found where we don’t expect it and that this unrighteousness/ injustice is often found in the ecclesiastical institutions that set out to manage the boundaries of “good news.” Indeed, the soil out of which the gospel emerges is not smooth, well-packed, soil, the dense ground upon which a road, say, might be laid down. The gospel emerges out of broken soil, soil opened by the rakes, hoes, shovels, and ploughs of a cultivator who knows that growth disrupts its ground.


Isaiah 64 echoes at the beginning and at the end of the gospel. As he is baptized, Jesus looks up and there “he saw the heavens torn apart” (Mark 1:10). When Jesus ex-pired on the cross, “the curtain of the temple [adorned with embroidered depictions of heavenly bodies] was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). The heavens are torn open first at his baptism, the foreshadowing of his crucifixion, and again as he died on the cross. These are bookends proclaiming the apocalypse that gives Jesus his name, that Jesus performs, that is performed by the God who has been dis-closed where Jesus opens to those he loves.


Advent is celebrated as a time of waiting. It is a way of remembering that Christmas is not guaranteed, that resurrection is not guaranteed, and that resurrection comes, if it comes, as a gift to those who lack every resource that could produce it. However, it is helpful to remember that the first Christmas, too, is, like the baptism of Jesus, a sign of what is to come. It is a mistake to think of Christmas Day as the first day of the chronology of the incarnation of God. The promise of Christmas is certainly that Jesus is “the one.” However, that promise is “fulfilled” (filled full and ruptured) only with Holy Week. It is in the gathering of his whole life on Easter Sunday that makes Christmas Day the coming of God and there is no Christmas Day without the strange glory of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday shining back upon it. Indeed that is the logic of the gospel, viz., that God redeems the old, that God forgives, that God recreates, that God makes all things new. Not to open Christmas Day to Holy Week is the temptation of “Christian culture,” the temptation of a world that forgets who the gospel is for, the temptation of a world that hides from its own injustice/unrighteousness, its complicity in the grinding of the faces of the poor and weak under the heel of the rich and powerful, among whom are— tragically!—to be found rich and powerful ecclesiasts.


It is ironic that ecclesiastical institutions are not uncommonly slow to notice that the very people battered by the world’s aggression are those from whom they themselves recoil. Indeed, it is wise for churches to be conscious in their spiritual disciplines of their own worldliness, their own blindness, as they are offended by their neighbors, especially those who do not conform to the standards of the world around them. Churches may be slower, in fact, to provide room for the outcasts of a previous secular generation than its current surrounding world is. That world certainly is not to provide an example to the church. The world’s reasons are not the same as the reasons of the gospel. Still, the observable actions of the world are sometimes not against, but for the gospel.


As we anticipate the Day of the Lord that is to rend the sky, roll back clouds as a scroll, and disclose the wrath of God against all unrighteousness, we would do well to remember that we who are quickest to call ourselves “holy” and others “unholy” will “fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind will take us away.” The gospel calls upon us to repent of our lust for glory, our lust to rise above others, our lust to lay hold of a holy God. Our prayer on the way to Christmas Day must be our prayer on the way to every day, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

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