Generous Orthodoxy  




Friday, November 09, 2018

Thoughts for the Advent season 2018

Some churches (especially in the mainlines) use the Common Lectionary for the Sunday scripture readings, but many do not. I preached from the lectionary the entire time I was in parish ministry and found it sufficiently rich and challenging to sustain me in the pulpit for many years.  After that, when I became a peripatetic preacher, I found myself choosing passages freely. There is much to be said for both. When the lectionary texts from the Old Testament and the Epistles are selected, there is great richness to be excavated. However, the lectionary can also be quite confining, especially when one has been in ministry for many years and comes upon the same texts for the same day every three years. Moreover, if the sermon is solely from the Gospels month after month, year after year, preacher and congregation alike will be on a very restricted diet. In addition, three lessons and a Psalm in one worship service is too much. No one can preach effectively on more than two lessons at a time. A series of sermons based on a selected chapter or book of Scripture is a particularly enriching exercise. (I've always wanted to preach a series on Ecclesiastes--and Ezekiel, and Habakkuk, and so forth--but have never had the opportunity. The lectionary does encourage a series on Romans once every three years—during the summer when attendance is likely to be non-serial!)

Having said that, I nevertheless find that the lectionary readings for pre-Advent and the first three Sundays of Advent, in particular, have immense significance. In this season more than any other, the themes of the righteousness of God and the judgment to come are front and center. These are not subjects that many readers of this blog would freely choose.  I vividly remember taking an eminent visiting theologian to an Episcopal service on a Sunday morning a decade or so ago. It must have been near Advent, because at least one of the texts spoke vigorously of judgment. The preacher said airily, “We don’t believe in judgment any more,” and passed on to one of the other  texts. That’s a true story. My guest was appalled.

In the news this month I have been reading of the relentlessly cruel war in Yemen, and the brazen Saudi-executed murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The two are intricately linked. The war in Yemen, which is causing one of the most devastating civilian crises of our time, has been prolonged by the aggressive participation of the Saudis, who in turn rely almost entirely on the West for sophisticated weaponry. A photo of a strikingly beautiful little Yemeni girl on the verge of death from hunger was on the front page of The New York Times. Many people wrote to the Times in distress, offering help, but the child died a few days later—one of many who were perhaps not so beautiful and therefore not chosen for the front page, but equally loved by their impoverished, powerless parents. The Saudis bomb indiscriminately, using armaments supplied by America, Britain, and France. The United States in particular is heavily invested in the Saudi role in Yemen. The war has been going on for four years, and international observers are predicting a famine of epic proportions soon—some are saying the worst in 100 years.  The season of Advent is designed to tell us that we are involved such things whether we know it or not.

Parallel to all this is the matter of the Khashoggi murder, with its unusually grisly details. I have written in my Crucifixion book that wherever there is impunity, the Powers of Sin and Death will find free range.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS),  has learned that he had better conduct his killings with more circumspection in future, so as not to embarrass his American and European sponsors, but there will be no real punishment. Three major American consulting companies (McKinsey, BGG, and Booz Allen) continue to be deeply involved in helping MBS build up his country according to economic indicators. One specialist in the region says that these consultants “soft-pedal” their advice, because “their fear is that if they speak truth to power at this stage…they will be tossed out.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/world/middleeast/mckinsey-bcg-booz-allen-saudi-khashoggi.html

What has all this got to do with Christian faith, and with Advent in particular? The season of the church year that lends itself best to speaking about these matters is the season in which we speak of the coming judgment of God, and the traditional Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell). Advent looks to the future when the righteousness of God will triumph over all evil, but not without judgment. There is no human being who will not be present at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:32). Who and what will save us from our complicity with evil in the Last Day? Our good deeds? Matthew 25:34-46 might lead us to think so. That’s one of many reasons that we need Paul and the other Epistles alongside the four Gospels.

What bothers me most, and what should bother all of us, is a continuing bifurcation in Christian thinking between sins and Sin. In so much of the teaching and preaching of the churches, we are fixated on individual sin and ignore corporate sin because we do not understand that the entire planet Earth is occupied by forces determined to undo the work of God. When we personally know people to be kind, useful members of our local community, it is very difficult to think of them as part of the machinery of the Devil. If I myself give food to the hungry at Thanksgiving and contribute to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, doesn’t that get me off the hook?

In a word, NO. As Paul writes in Romans 5, we are all born into Adam—“Sin came into the world through one man [Adam] and Death through Sin, and so Death spread to all men because all men sinned…”

There are times when we should examine our own hearts for the signs of the sinful nature (“Adam”) that infect our own hearts, and there are times when we need to see the larger picture. I get criticism because, in my Crucifixion and Advent books, I concentrate so much on corporate sin. But that is deliberate. I believe that the only way to get the attention of the whole church is to understand two things (this is oversimplified, but I’m hoping it makes the point):

1) The “evangelical” churches of the so-called Christian Right tend to concentrate on individual sin (as long as it’s not the president’s—he gets a pass) and therefore to excuse or ignore the involvement, active and passive, of every individual in corporate misdoing. A classic example is the often-heard slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” That is to say, if one person is reckless or careless enough to kill with a gun, that’s his problem (not to mention the problem of the person[s] killed); governmental regulations have nothing to do with individual misdeeds.
2) In making social justice their central message, the mainline churches have admittedly made major contributions in the past (for instance during the civil rights movement, when some white churches made really significant contributions), but if care is not taken, this message will, over time, attract only the like-minded, and in so doing will have devalued the gospel of the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5 and 5:6), which identifies all of humankind as perpetrators of evil, whether through conscious intent, or through weakness, or through ignorance (Romans 3:9-11).

It is crucial to understand two things at once:

1)      We are each of us subject to the law of Sin and Death (Romans 5:12-21), and all of us are caught in an intricate web of global misdoing, so that it is impossible to blame any one individual or even groups of individuals for socioeconomic crises, and equally impossible to find a permanent earthly solution to any geopolitical problem.

2)      Nevertheless, God through Jesus Christ has created a body of disciples to wage war against Sin and Death with the full panoply of the armor of God, even to our own deaths—whether the death be literal or figurative, it will be death to this world.  

Ephesians 6:10-18 is illustrious for its powerful description of the armor of God. Ephesians is not one of the strongly apocalyptic books of the New Testament, because it is not markedly future-oriented as are the undisputed letters of Paul; however, the author of Ephesians well identifies the apocalyptic world-view of the New Testament, writing of “the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1-2). Paul would say that we are all “the children of disobedience” because we are all “in Adam”  (I Corinthians 15:22)—but Paul also says, “You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit” (Romans 8:9). In Romans 8 Paul proclaims the new life in Christ as a present reality even as he preserves the now-not yet dialectic so central to the Advent message. Paul is referring to baptism, in which God’s action counts for everything: God “ has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:12-13).

The best imagery therefore for Advent is that of underground resistance against the “dominion of darkness.” We do not belong to the darkness, not because we are righteous, but because God is righteous.

There is a passage well known to Pauline scholars but somewhat neglected in the churches. It is referred to as the hos me (“as though not”) passage in I Corinthians 7:25-31. This is the classic now/not yet passage. Paul teaches that every Christian—and every Christian community—is to live in this world “as though not” living in it, “for the form of this world is passing away.” What a challenge to preach! I have never done so. Perhaps I will do so this season.