Meditations for Advent
2 Corinthians 4:6
Richard B. Hays
Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament
“Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” This urgent prayer appears three times in Psalm 80, which we will read on the final Sunday of Advent this year: “Restore us.” Each December, across “the ever-circling years,” we return in the company of all God’s people to acknowledge our aching need. We ask again to be restored, made new, and saved—to be made whole by God’s grace. Only a community in darkness and pain can pray this prayer truthfully.
The psalmist knows that our hope lies in the revelation of God’s face. That is the hope that lies at the end of the dark, longing season of Advent. The apostle Paul proclaimed the dawning of that hope: “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine in darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The God who created the world reveals his glory in the child born to Mary, the child who is Emmanuel, God with us. Once again this Advent we pray that his face will shine upon us, a people who walk in darkness, and restore us.
James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching
Some years ago when I was in Zimbabwe, it was a time of great drought. Whenever I mentioned the weather and the aridity of the land to my companions, they always made the same reply: “We are waiting for the rain.” Their waiting was mixed with elements of prayer, watchfulness, and hope. They knew that they couldn’t control the weather, but that did not suppress the active and alert posture of their waiting. In Romans 13 Paul adds an additional dimension to our waiting for redemption, one that is most appropriate to Advent. Since it is not the weather we are waiting upon, but the Lord, the season of Advent invites us to self-examination and repentance. It’s time to wake up and clear our heads from the numbing effects of Christmas and to move up the spiritual ladder from the good cheer of the punch bowl and the good will of seasonable charitable impulses to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Advent prepares us for the sonic boom of God’s entrance into history; it’s only because God became fully human and fully subject to the cruel laws of history that we can confess, “Salvation is nearer than when we first believed.” We are on a journey; but even more amazing, God is on a journey toward us. “Look up!” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, “Your salvation is drawing nigh.”
As I overhear John the Baptist’s urgent warning, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” I am reminded of an old “Far Side” cartoon. It depicted the side mirror of a passenger car, reflecting a huge eyeball from a scary creature leering somewhere very near the rear bumper. The concave mirror bears the ominous warning: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
John the Baptist has gazed into his own apocalyptic mirror and knows that the reign of God’s Messiah will burst onto the scene at any moment, and Israel’s deep longings for liberation, justice, and peace will finally be fulfilled. This is good news: Israel has been oppressed and living on little else but hope for centuries. But John’s graphic language is deeply disturbing—the Messiah will come in judgment bearing a winnowing fork to separate the good wheat from the useless chaff. He will destroy the rebellious and purify the remnant with fire. It sounds like first century shock and awe.
While John’s preaching is faithful to Israel’s prophetic tradition, he will soon get more than he ever imagined in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who will indeed destroy God’s enemies, but not with the power of his sword. Rather, he will defeat them with his arsenal of forgiveness, suffering love, and the fire of his Holy Spirit.
Are we ready for the imminent, radical reorientation of all creation that our Messiah in the mirror will bring?
Associate Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics
The text portrays the renewal of creation that shall break forth when God rules. A key sign of God’s rule being enacted is the healing of the blind, deaf, and lame. In the Old Testament, physical malady is explicitly linked with injustice. This was for good reason. Physical affliction was an economic, social, and political catastrophe. The same is true today. The rich live longer, are less sick and convert economic power into political power in order to secure their interests. Conversely, ill health and being disabled are directly correlated with poverty and political impotency.
God’s healing rule overturns social exclusion and the structures that keep the poor poor. Healing summons forth those excluded into a common life by enacting an event of divine-human communion and communicating to the excluded that they are not rejected, abandoned, or forgotten and announcing to the excluders that the sick or disabled are subjects of divine blessing, not wrath. The primary achievement of healing in Isaiah is not the restoration of sight or the ability to walk, but the restoration of the ability of those healed to express themselves within and to act upon a common world: walking, hearing, and seeing symbolizing the basic requirements of active participation. God’s rule bestows the gift of shalom to those who lack it, bringing not simply physical health but renewed membership in the people of YHWH.
We are to be witnesses to this rule.
Robert Earl Cushman Professor Emeritus of Christian Theology
In just these seven verses we confront the big picture of God’s purpose and plan for the whole world, the entire drama of God’s actions to achieve his saving pleasure among the peoples of the earth. The good news came first by way of the promises delivered through the scriptural prophets within Israel, and the arrival of a royal Savior was foretold by way of the Davidic throne. The universally decisive historical point was nothing less than the incarnation of the divine Son, confirmed by the Holy Spirit’s raising of that same Jesus Christ from the dead.
As we read through these opening verses of Romans, we can call to mind—and even recite—the Apostolic Creed, whereby in “the obedience of faith” we take up our own place in the story. For in the epistolary text we ourselves encounter the apostle Paul, who accomplished his charge to convey the gospel to “God’s beloved” in the Rome of his day. That same message has been transmitted across the centuries and the continents through the reading of Paul’s and other apostolic writings, their homiletic exposition, their moral influence, and their sacramental enactment. Having heard and received that very message, we too are now among those “called to be saints” and to proclaim “among all the nations” the “grace and peace” that come “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birt h is enveloped in mystery. God’s heavenly host proclaims the good news to lowly shepherds and not to the emperor and governors of the land. Jesus is named the Davidic Messiah, but he is laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Mary and Joseph are at the mercy of the emperor’s ostensible power since they must leave their home and go to Bethlehem to be registered for the census. Yet their return to Bethlehem ultimately leads to the fulfillment of Scripture, since Jesus is born in the city of David (Micah 5:2). Terrified shepherds huddle in the dead of night, but their fear turns to praise when they witness the babe born in Bethlehem.
With the advent of Jesus, we find shepherds witnessing to the glory of God, angels proclaiming peace on earth, and Mary treasuring all these things in her heart (Luke 2:19). But above all, we find our God swaddled in bands of cloth and lying in a manger; we find the King of kings cradled in a makeshift crib. On this eve of the birth of the Christ Child, let us ponder the mysteriousness of a God who took on human flesh, a God who lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful from their thrones (Luke 1:52).
Eboni Marshall Turman
Assistant Research Professor of Black Church Studies; Director of the Office of Black Church Studies
Amidst the commercialization of a season that compels us to spend, savor, and splurge, I cannot help but consider the true meaning of today’s celebration—the pinnacle of what theologians have christened as the Incarnation of God in Christ; the advent of One who will be called King of kings; the day when we celebrate the enfleshing of the Word that dwells among us, and in us, and with us.
Jesus was born in the poverty of a barn, but John the Evangelist reminds us that Jesus also came “full of grace and truth.” It is a divine contradiction, an ineffable mystery. And at Christmas we are reminded of the great paradox of our faith—which is simply, that grace comes.
No matter where we find ourselves today, with friends or alone, the truth is that grace comes to us. We celebrate grace that comes as light that shines through the darkness. At Christmas we celebrate grace that comes as a child whose name shall be called Wonderful!
Many will give gifts and some will receive, but today our gift comes in the form of that sacred Johannine memo, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” It reminds us that even amidst life’s wintry seasons, grace shows up… in the most unexpected ways and in the most unexpected places. Blessed Christmas!
Each week in December, Duke Divinity School will share a new reflection on Advent.