This month I’ve been reading Advent by Fleming Rutledge. The book is a collection of her writings and sermons on Advent which she insists is not just the coming of baby Jesus, but the “once and future coming of Jesus Christ.” I’ve made my way slowly, one tiny section each night before sleeping, and it wakes me from my stupor. It is easy for me to believe the stories on the surface of living: Christmas is commercial, next year will be better, I am what I make of myself. Marinating in those lies makes me sluggish, unwilling and unprepared to move with the demands and truths of life.
Instead of being lulled to sleep, I am called to be awake. If I was dead before Christ, now I am alive. As one who is alive, I am a child of the day, called to self-control and putting on armor. Rutledge frequently references 1 Thessalonians 4 in her Advent teaching, a passage speaking of judgment and relief that sounds unfamiliar to my Christmas ears. Because my mind associates Advent with a baby, with good news, with hope, I need her reminders that yes, Advent is about hope, but it is hope in the face of horror.
Advent is about hope that remains in the midst of a battle. In a world under the control of God’s enemy (and humanity’s enemy), “once you believe in Jesus, you are going to be drawn into his battle.” We live in a world occupied by enemy forces. The world is not bad, but Satan’s control of it is indeed very bad. Here is where our resistance to Satan’s rule happens. Here is where Advent finds us: between the coming of Jesus as a baby and Jesus as King who drives out the enemy.
In most of middle-class America, it is easy to succumb to the lie that we are not involved in this resistance, that the world is a mostly-lovely place, and if we could only elect the leaders we choose or send the people who remind us of the terror of our planet far from us, all will be well. But all will not be well until Jesus makes it well. Until then we must claim our position. “If you live in occupied territory, you can be a collaborator or you can be in the underground resistance, but you can’t just be neutral.” We have to choose a side, not just in our minds, but with our lives.
Lately, I’ve been reading and rereading the tiny but weighty letter of Ephesians. As Paul wraps up his message, he has a final message for these believers. “Be strengthened by the Lord.” “Put on the full armor of God.” “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” “Take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. Stand therefore.” This is not the way we think of battle. We are warring against enemies we cannot see and could never conquer on our own. We fight, not by attacking, but by resisting. By refusing to believe those lies about life and instead living by truth and righteousness. By refusing to participate in the life offered to us and living in the kingdom instead. We resist, standing firm in the face of the ungodly ways of power and oppression.
Many days this feels futile. Evil seems to triumph. Sin appears to run unhampered through the church. Problems chase us throughout life. Death forces its way into the most sacred moments. Doubts crowd the darkness. Our small resistance seems to accomplish little. What is one small candle against a hurricane? But it is not our work to force change, to smother people into submission. Nor is it our work to deny the reality of this existence: to be human is to suffer, to carry pain, to ask questions that do not have answers. It is our work to be changed, to be transformed to be like Jesus who has conquered all. We participate in the work God is doing. In The Deeply Formed Life Rich Villodas writes, “We can’t fix everything. Truthfully, we can’t fix most things. But we can, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s empowerment, do our part to bear witness to the just and compassionate heart of God.” We stand and bear witness in the darkness.
“Anything we can do–anything at all, however small or large–any deeds of kindness or generosity or courage that eases the load of someone else or brings truth and justice to light–is a sign of the advent of the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
May Advent remind us to join the resistance, to live with courage and creativity in a world occupied by an enemy, to resist the movement of Satan and stand as children of the light emblazoned across the darkness. May we be honest about reality for that is the only way we can live well.
Merry Christmas, friends. Immanuel, God with us.