I believe a Christian can give only one response to the difficult question of suffering. This place is not what God had in mind and he will in fact set the whole world to rights one day…we pray that it comes quickly.
Often this account of suffering is described as a grand divine drama. Part of this divine drama includes a long period in the history of Israel when she was under the oppression of broken governments. Sometimes it was the oppression of foreign governments. These foreign rulers would come in and defile the altars in the temple and prevent them worshipping God.
One of the worst parts of this story is that the times when they were under the leadership of Jewish kings and Jewish rulers were some of the worst oppression that Israel experienced. It wasn’t like all the other nations were the bad guys and God’s people were the good guys. Even God’s own people would oppress their own nation.
This is all just part of the story of brokenness that you and I live every day. The reality is that we live in a world that is marked by death and alienation and suffering.
Unless we might get romantic about a time when things weren’t so bad: Isaiah refers to the “yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.”
This story of brokenness, sin, oppression, and alienation is the very story that we recall as we observe Advent. Advent is the first season of the church year. Many of our churches don’t observe the church year other than Christmas and Easter, but many churches throughout the world recall every significant moment in the life of Jesus each year.
Advent is a season made of the four Sundays before Christmas. We just started Advent this past Sunday. And advent is that season when we recall the reality of the brokenness of our world.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason that some churches don’t observe Advent is that most of us don’t want to think much about the realities of suffering. We prefer to sing happy smiley songs. We prefer to move past death and loss and suffering and get on with our lives.
But Advent calls us to live with the realities and brokenness of this world. That is one of the reasons that I appreciate the Advent Conspiracy. This movement, like the season of Advent is intended, calls out to us to live with the realities of inequality and suffering which are among us today.
The movies and our fantasies tell us that the holiday season is supposed to be a time of hugs, eggnog, and fireplace talks with our family. But many of us come from broken families. Maybe you spend the holidays driving to moms and then to dads and dividing up your time between too many families. Sometimes it is even worse when the family tries to “hold it together,” but it just doesn’t work.
Others may wish more than anything that your family would be there, even it was broken. You have lost members of your family to disease or accidents. And the holiday season just reminds you that she isn’t there. That he isn’t going to walk through that door. Or maybe they are so alienated that they won’t be there at all…just like last year.
Advent is a reminder that in some ways God is not with us. If God’s presence was fully with us then surely the evil and alienation and suffering would end. This is the promise of vision of the kingdom of God where there is no death or mourning or crying or pain and God’s presence is among his people.
But in just a few weeks we will liturgically move from this time of suffering and absence to a time of celebrating the very presence of Jesus. Christmas is that time when we celebrate God as Immanuel…God with us. To prepare for Christmas properly is to endure this season of Advent fully, without jumping too quickly to the joy of Christmas.
So this Advent I challenge to prepare your heart for Christmas by entering the Christmas season just as Jesus did. Jesus overcomes the alienation between God and humanity by entering the ugliness of our world. And he enters the world not as a powerful king riding on a horse. He enters as a little baby without even being offered the hospitality of a night at the inn.
It is Jesus’s entry into our world that tells us that God is indeed with us. He will not allow the alienation that we experience to go on unchecked. He enters that world of alienation and interrupts it by creating a community that will live differently than those around it.
Christmas is that season of Immanuel- God with us- and Immanuel calls us to live with one another. To be present to one another in a radical way even when the brokenness of our relationships is obvious.
In many ways I love that the Christmas season is one which is so centered on food. Eucharist, or communion, is this central practice of Christian worship, the one which many Christians claim is the moment you will experience Jesus most radically present. The time when we are closest to God is the time when we eat with him. The Eucharistic meal…the communion meal…is the God with us meal. Communion is also a “with one another” meal.
The prayer that many Christian pray on the occasion of this meal is that we eat a meal in which we remember the last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples AND share a meal of fellowship with one another.
Many of us are going to gather this Christmas around food. And food affords us a brilliant moment of being “with” one another.
I want to ask you to take that a bit further this Christmas. As you gather around the table this Christmas, whether you do so at one family meal or two or three different family times, I want you to consider this to be a sacramental time. Sacrament is this fancy church word that means that something physical, something tangible, becomes the occasion for God giving a special grace to us.
So I want you to consider the food that you share this coming Christmas season to be a grace filled meal. And even when you do not have a meal before you, I want you to imagine yourself taking a piece of that bread and offering it to the people around you.
Even those that I have the deepest kinds of relationships with—ones that have evidence of the least amount of brokenness—are made even more full and beautiful when we take time to share our presence with one another.
One of my greatest joys is to eat food with my students. I take great joy in worshipping with them. I love moments where we open the Bible and study together. But let me tell you that this past semester I have been learning to be present with my students in new ways…ways that I should have known all along…but we lose our way a little bit. That’s the brokenness that we all share. I had lost my way in my presence with them.
So I’ve taken this semester, and I plan to do the same next semester, to really be present with students. And let me tell you that this has been one of the most beautiful times in my life. And so when I challenge you to take seriously the way that “God with us” calls us to be present with others, I do so both as one who is in the moment of learning how to do this faithfully AND as one who has tasted of the beauty of life lived with others.
I challenge you during this advent season and during the upcoming Christmas season: Go witness to a God who is with us- Immanuel- by being with others. Go be with the homeless, hungry, and cold. Go be with those who have no one that loves them well. Go be with your own family, even if is a family filled with dysfunction.
And may the peace and love and presence of Jesus be with you as you go.
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Related Post: The Incarnation of Jesus: A Devotional Reading