Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Matthew 1:18-25
by Daniel Harrell

By some estimates, the average person spends about six years of his lifetime dreaming—which for me means six years spent magically hovering over a pond in Scotland while trying to get my skin buttoned before my mother calls me to walk her wombat—or something weird like that. Had I lived in ancient times, dreams would have been considered as originating from somewhere supernatural. Dreams were taken so seriously at times they were admissible as evidence in court. Nightmares were thought to be work of evil spirits or even signs of demon possession. Few dreams were ever lightly dismissed. It’s no wonder, then, that God employed dreams with such effectiveness in the Christmas story. It was a dream that diverted the magi away from revealing Jesus’ whereabouts to Herod, a dream that got Joseph, Mary and Jesus out of town before Herod went off on his infanticidal spree, a dream that announced the all-clear sign once Herod died, and of course a dream that persuaded Joseph to marry Mary even though by all external accounts it was an outrageously bad idea.

You know the story well. We rehearse it every Christmas. Virgin teenaged girl. Betrothed to a local tradesman. Nice guy possibly just pushing 20 himself. An arranged betrothal which in that culture carried the weight of matrimony. All that was left was the physical consummation and moving Mary’s things into Joseph’s house. Thus for Mary to be “found” with child while presumably still a virgin was a scandal of the highest order. Mary’s parents were disgraced and Joseph humiliated. Granted, Matthew is quick to inform that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but certainly those who heard Mary plead that case would have only been further outraged. Imagine, her trying to pass off her promiscuity on God!

It’s not that miraculous conceptions weren’t part of Biblical lore. Most famously there was the aged and infertile Sarah giving birth to Isaac. Then came the sterile Mrs. Manoah bearing Samson, the barren Hannah delivering Samuel and of course Mary’s own infertile cousin Elizabeth carrying John the Baptist. But in each of these instances a husband was still in the mix. Nobody in the Bible had gotten pregnant out of thin air. What were the neighbors supposed to think? What else was there for Joseph to do but file the papers? Matthew informs us that Joseph was a righteous man which meant that Joseph obeyed the law and the law said you dump a woman who cheats on you.

Actually, the law said you stone a woman who cheats on you. By all rights Joseph should have been reaching for rocks. But Joseph’s righteousness consisted of his interpreting the law in the most gentle way possible. Clearly he loved Mary and had no desire to disgrace her any more than she had already disgraced herself. He would divorce her quietly with no charges filed in order to save everybody any further embarrassment. Frankly, the whole thing was a miserable mess. And though Joseph didn’t know it yet, it was all God’s fault.

Though we know the story, it can still be hard to hear. Why this and not a greeting card approach? Why not a well lit suburban cradle, cuddly nursery room animals, an incandescent baby Jesus and proud, smiling parents? We traditionally light advent candles representing joy, love, hope and peace; not anxiety, shame, disgrace and scandal. If the point of a virgin birth was for the Son of God to have no original sin, why start by making everything look so sinful? And why be so secret about it? Why not a blaze of public, visible Holy Spirit glory and then a pregnant Mary? That way her neighbors could have thrown her a baby shower with swaddling clothes from Baby Gap. Somebody could have made sure there was room at the Bethlehem Hilton so that Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a manger. Or better yet, why not just skip the whole birth process entirely? Spare Joseph the painful embarrassment and Mary the painful labor. It’s not like Jesus did anything for his first thirty years anyway. Why not just miraculously pop down in person on Good Friday and do what needed doing then?

Christian theology has offered a myriad of explanations for the full-blown incarnation. The logic of substitutionary atonement demands that Jesus live an fully obedient life—adolescence included—in order to substitute his lifelong obedience for our lifetimes of disobedience. Furthermore, the doctrine of Christ’s dual nature begs for combined human and divine parentage. Jesus had to be fully man and fully God; free from sin’s predisposition but at the same time free to sin in order that he might be tempted in every way as we are, important when you’re looking for sympathy from God. As to Christ’s scandalous mode of entering the world, it disabused any escalating expectations of God’s Messiah showing up as some sort of celebrity Superhero. God’s redemption of humanity needed to be an unpretentious operation. Fans don’t let their heroes die.

Granted, the only explanation Matthew offers is that “the Scripture was fulfilled.” Not that the Scripture he cited really had anything to do with Jesus’ birth. It comes from Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Matthew’s citation has caused centuries of scholarly consternation since the word translated young woman in Isaiah generically applies to any unmarried or soon-to-be-married girl. Given the context of Isaiah 7, it’s highly unlikely that the prophet was talking about the virgin Mary giving birth since the birth he talked about apparently occurred in Isaiah’s own lifetime. Israel’s King Ahaz was in dire straits and needed divine help. Eager to help, God presses Ahaz to ask for a sign. But Ahaz, feigning modesty, demurs. He wanted to do things his own way. So God gave him another sign, though it hardly looked like a sign from God. “A young woman will have a baby and name it Emmanuel.” Big deal. Women have babies everyday. Which may have been the point: God being with Ahaz meant that God was going to let nature takes its course. Assyria was strong enough to take down Israel any day of the week. So God lets them do it.

Why does Matthew quote this Scripture? If you read on in Isaiah, you realize that chapter 7 is just the beginning of a whole string of events about a child and the name Immanuel. In chapter 8, the name Immanuel gets attached to the entire people of God who were coming under Assyrian attack. “Since this people rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloh,” Isaiah foretold, “the Lord is about to bring against them mighty floodwaters of Assyria which overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!” Check it out: God not only lets Assyria take down Israel but apparently was willing to go down with them.

But then you turn to Isaiah 9 where Emmanuel resurfaces as a child of redemption. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. …For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his dominion and peace there will be no end.” The ordinary child born in Isaiah 7 as a sign of failure gives way to the extraordinary child prophesied in chapter 9 as a sign of salvation. Matthew had Isaiah’s whole pattern in mind when he spoke of Christ fulfilling it. Failure is the way to victory. Disgrace is the way to grace. Bad news comes before good news. Ordinary gives way to extraordinary. Humiliation is the way to heaven.

It’s the pattern throughout Scripture. Emmanuel, God with us causes concern before comfort and joy. “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years,” Moses said, “he did it to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart… He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna… to teach you that people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” “You save the humble O Lord,” Samuel spoke, “… but your eyes are on the proud to humiliate them.” “The tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you,” Jesus said, “this despised tax collector went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It’s been said that true faith takes you as low as you can go so that God can raise you up. Except that when Joseph found Mary to be pregnant, he had not yet gone as low as he would go. That happened later that night as Joseph slept on his decision to divorce his unfaithful wife. That night the Lord used an angel and a dream to wake him up. “Joseph son of David, fear not (angels always say that). Take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son whom you will name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Because Joseph was a righteous man, he obeyed God. But because only Joseph dreamed the dream, his obedience ironically cost him his reputation as a man of obedience. Talk about a nightmare. True faith took Joseph as low as he could go.

Yet what’s so remarkable about the Christmas story is that God himself went down as low as He could go too. Just like Isaiah foretold and we read last Sunday: “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.” “Jesus made himself nothing,” Paul wrote, “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to death—on a cross as a guilty criminal.” Despised and rejected. God with us means that God takes on the very sin that separates us from him to the very places we sink ourselves. True faith takes you as low as you can go, but truth is, you were going to go there anyway. Perhaps a better way to say it is that God lets you go as low as you can go so that he can meet you there. After all, when you’re as low as you can go, you have no where else to go—but up.

This is the pattern of Christmas. Disgrace is the way to grace. Bad news comes before good news. Humiliation is the way to heaven. For Jesus too. Paul describes Jesus in Romans as one born according to the flesh, situated in the line of King David, a notable designation since by then David’s line was defunct, run into the ground by the likes of King Ahaz. Yet according to the pattern, Paul goes on to describe Jesus as the one raised by the Spirit out of failure and death to be crowned with power and glory. And not only him, but as Paul adds, “you also.” God lets you go as low as you can go so that can meet you there, be with you there, and raise you up from there with Jesus to where “God with us” is always a dream come true.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Holy Highway

Isaiah 35:1-10
by Daniel Harrell

We’ve spent this Advent in historic Advent fashion, looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming instead looking back at his first. With only 13 shopping days left until Christmas, you may wonder whether we’re ever going to get on to the reason for the season. I’m glad to report that there’s a way to do both. Star-Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin ran a piece this week about a apocalypse-minded jeweler in Superior, Wisconsin who is holding a “Second Coming Sale” with all jewelry 50% off. “With fire about to rain down on the earth and salvation at hand, now is not the time to deprive yourself of a little bling. Life may indeed be brutally short, but diamonds are forever.” Explaining the sale in a local commercial, the Wisconsin jeweler says, “The Bible predicts the day of the Lord, followed by the return of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem. As I read the daily news and look around the world, I believe we're really close to that day. Nevertheless, if you want jewelry here and now, I have diamonds and gemstones, gold, silver, watches and clocks, and I’m selling everything at 50 percent off.”

What I want to know is if Jesus is coming back so soon, why not just give the jewelry away? I’m guessing that the jeweler will stick with 50% off, just in case.

Smart move—especially since not even Jesus knew when he’d be back. However he did know what his coming back would look like. Jesus described it as “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”—glory having nothing to do with bling. This description and its accompanying apocalyptic imagery draws from the prophet Daniel and Isaiah too. It’s likely related in part to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as well as to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 AD (which is how Jesus could also say in Mark’s gospel, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”) At the same time, Jesus’ ascension was more about the Son of Man leaving in clouds with power and great glory. Still, as his disciples stood and gaped at Jesus’ exit into the sky, angels told them that, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way as you saw him go.” It’s significant that Jesus ascended with his redeemed humanity still intact. As on Christmas Day, God comes in human flesh on Judgment Day too: in a manger as we are, in clouds of glory as we shall be.

Still, not a lot of churches do Second Coming Pageants during Advent. Given all the associated doom and destruction, I’m sure the concern is with not scaring the kids. This is why the Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, which does put on a Second Coming Pageant, schedules it for Halloween night.

On the other hand, Christmas pageants are plentiful and chances are good if you grew up in church that at some point you donned a bathrobe and draped your head in a towel to take part in the annual nativity scene. At my childhood church, the holy family, shepherds and angels surrounded a makeshift stable while the choir sang Away in a Manger—followed by a visit from Santa. I always thought it weird for Santa to visit the manger scene since Jesus, being God, probably had (or could get) everything he wanted. Even weirder was how the star of the show, the baby Jesus, was annually played by a baby doll. Why make such a big deal about Christ the Savior being born in human flesh only to have him show up in plastic?

Thankfully here at Colonial Church you don’t have to worry about that. This Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus will be played by none other than the newly baptized Andrew Jonathan Hobbs. I take for granted a live baby Jesus has been the practice for some years now. At my childhood church, bothered by the word made plastic, we installed a live baby Jesus played by Mary’s 3-month-old baby brother, Trevor. That year, as if on cue, as the choir sang no crying he makes, baby Jesus, the sharp hay stabbing holes in his backside, let loose a full blooded scream. The embarrassed Mary (who’d had enough of Trevor’s wailing at home), instinctively wheeled around and shouted at Trevor to shut up—which of course didn’t go over well since you’re not supposed to yell at Jesus. Our church went back to baby dolls the next year. I actually preferred the screaming Jesus better. If Jesus could get upset then I could too without worrying whether Santa would still bring me what I wanted for Christmas.

That’s the good news about Jesus’ second coming: you’re guaranteed to get everything you could ever want. Isaiah 35 describes it as so good that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

Of course that the desert would ever come close to singing is momentous in and of itself. As you might remember from our study of John the Baptist, the desert stood for Israel’s barren, wintry wasteland of unbelief. It was in the desert that the chosen people lost faith in God, despite their dramatic rescue by God’s grace from the brutal oppression of Egypt. But now, in Isaiah’s Advent preview, God’s grace blossoms anew. The desert bursts into springtime blooms of joy and song. Water surges onto the dustscape transforming wastelands into wetlands. Those whose lives had collapsed and who sat head in hands; fearful, anxious, guilty, despairing—now their loads are lifted, their fears expunged, their despair overtaken by hope. Isaiah proclaims sight for the blind and sound to deaf ears. The lame will not merely walk; they will leap and the mute will sing. What makes the difference? The Messiah makes the difference. He comes to his people—with a vengeance! Lasting joy and peace are fruits of righteousness; but the roots of righteousness are justice and retribution for sin. “Here is your God,” Isaiah portends, “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Only when God has judged the enemies of his people can salvation in all its fullness be theirs.

Despite Isaiah’s beautiful poetry of salvation, that it comes with vengeance sounds a terribly discordant note. For some, divine wrath stirs up unnecessary fear, as well as unwarranted shame and guilt. For others, God’s wrath represents just another example of religion’s vindictive and poisonous capacity for validating human violence. Critics at both extremes attribute to God’s anger an evil which in effect cancels out his goodness. Admittedly, as Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel reminds us, anger is something that does come dangerously close to evil. Yet it would be wrong to identify anger as evil. Anger can be evil by association, but anger is never evil in essence. It may be reprehensible when associated with malice, but it remains morally necessary as resistance to malice. Heschel asks, “Could it ever be cruel that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, or when widows and orphans are oppressed?”

Any view of God’s wrath that seeks to parallel the psychology of human passion rather than to root itself in the theology of divine pathos is bound to misunderstand it. Unlike human anger, the Scriptures never consider God’s anger as unaccountable, unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a voluntary, purposeful and explosive force occasioned by the misconduct of his people, fueled by his concern for right and wrong, provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. God’s anger that consumes and afflicts never does so without moral justification.

Nevertheless, for many, moral justification is no excuse. That God would get angry at all is offensive. Yet to have a God who never gets mad for fear of offending must sooner or later be construed as the God who never gets mad at the offender no matter how vile their offense. To divest God of his anger is ultimately to render him so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he is always too late to save—a Santa Claus God instead of the God of Scripture; a Jesus who suffered the little children to come unto him, but not the Christ who said their abusers would be better off drowned with a millstone tied to their necks.

Isaiah declares that justice will be done and evil done with, paving a highway in the desert where not even fools can get lost. The highway runs straight back to God, a “way of holiness” on which the redeemed and the ransomed freely travel. Redeemed and ransomed are those people purchased by God—like felons set free on eternal bail. God put up not cash for their crimes, but his own self on a cross. The redeemed are made righteous not because they’ve behaved well (they haven’t); but because God has a thing for sinners. Redemption is a move of pure mercy. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…” God’s redemption of people redeems the earth too. “The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Just in time for the holidays, Isaiah’s buoyant vision of a blooming wasteland has been captured afresh in all of its CGI and 3D glory by the latest installment of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. If you’ve only managed to read the books, then you still know how Lewis picks up on Isaiah’s prophecy as he describes the loosening of the icy white witch’s evil grip on creation. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lewis wrote, “The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered the drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travelers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travelers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path. ‘This is no thaw,’ said the Dwarf [to the witch]… ‘This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”

For those unfamiliar with either the books or the movies, Aslan is a lion, the Christ figure whose own pure mercy in dying and coming back from the dead begets new life and a new world. However, inasmuch as this is Christmas, Lewis’ allegory of Christ initially coming as a lion can misrepresent. As New Yorker film critic Adam Gopnik observed, “a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reemerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory.”

That would be the Christmas story. And it would be the Advent story too. Turn to Revelation 5, and a mighty of angel of God announces the grand entrance of the Lion of Judah and the Root of David as the only one worthy to break open the seal to the Book of Life. The “Root of David” language comes from Isaiah where God’s anointed is portrayed in warrior-king like fashion; one about whom we read last Sunday who “will give justice to the poor and decide with equity for the meek. One who will smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips slay the wicked.” As for the Lion of Judah, that image derives from Jacob’s blessing to Judah, his lionized son, from whom “the scepter shall not depart, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendents until tribute comes to whom it belongs; and with it the obedience of all peoples.”

Normally such vivid imagery draws to mind a magnificent scene, soaring expectations of a ferocious and foreboding Savior, righteous and victorious. Yet what we see in Revelation is not that sort of picture at all. What we see is not a ferocious Aslan, King of the Beasts, but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been slaughtered. Of course, Isaiah had predicted this too. The victorious root and heir of David was forecast as one to be “oppressed and afflicted, led like a lamb to the slaughter.” But didn’t that only apply to his treatment on earth? What’s the Root of David doing showing up all bloodied in heaven? But then again, when the risen Jesus showed up to his disciples on Easter, he did tell them to look at his hands and his feet. Despite his triumph over the grave, Jesus still wore his scars.

This has always been the irony of the gospel: The Great High Priest is the sacrifice. The Good Shepherd is the slaughtered sheep. The Lion is the Lamb. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. And though the triumphant Lamb stands tall, he still wears the telltale scars of his slaughter. Crucifixion is not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation. Crucifixion indelibly stamps its mark on the eternal identity of God. The Root of David rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties.

Jesus arrived at Christmas with neither a plastic smile nor a majestic roar. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” Isaiah wrote, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” “Being in very nature God,” the apostle Paul later added, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The defeat of the cross is the Victory of God and the Way to Life—the Holy Way. It is the Way of Jesus for all who by faith are redeemed into his likeness. It’s all you could ever want.

C.S. Lewis wrote how “most people, when they really look into their own hearts, know that they want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel no learning can really satisfy. …There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.” And yet, the reality in which our longing fades need not be the reality of disappointment and despair. In Christ, our longing gives way to the reality of fulfillment. Isaiah promises. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Peace at the Zoo

Isaiah 11:1-10

by Daniel Harrell

Isaiah 11, the Lectionary assignment for this Second Advent Sunday is classically Christmas—so much so that portions of it frequently appear printed on Christmas cards. Especially verse 6: “The wolf shall live with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them.” There’s peace on earth on earth and goodwill among the animals at least, and children are in charge, as if that were something new. That Isaiah seems to speak of a specific child—namely the baby Jesus—is what makes Isaiah 11 suitable for Christmas cards. Never mind that Isaiah really isn’t necessarily referring to the baby Jesus here. It could be any child. The prophecy reiterates what we read last Sunday: this is a preview of new creation where predation ends and the little children have come unto the Lord since to them does belong the Kingdom of God.

Of course Jesus did come as a little child to lead us, he is the shoot that springs from Jesse’s stump. He is the branch who grows to bear fruit of the spirit. With wisdom and might he executes justice. And then we read, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Not something you’d print on a Christmas card. Though it would make a great Advent card. The kind of card you might send to the rude woman who shoved you out of the way fighting for Black Friday bargains at Target. If only I could get her address. If you were here last Sunday, you know that Advent, meaning coming or arrival initially shows up in church liturgy not as a Christmas ramp-up, but as a Judgment Day wake-up. By setting its sights on Jesus second coming instead of his first, Advent reminds the church of Christ’s coming to right the wrongs of injustice and restore the downtrodden. Advent counters the rampant despair and cynicism common to life in an unjust world, while at the same time fighting against the complacency and disobedience endemic to backsliding believers for whom Jesus has delayed too long. “Keep awake,” Jesus warned in the gospels, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. If the owner of a house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

While in college I served as the chaplain of my fraternity house, mostly because that was the job the religious guy always got pegged with. Ours wasn’t a Christian fraternity, but like many that originated in the South, it did have its Christian roots. Ironically, I endured a good deal of ridicule for my actually being a Christian. The other brothers felt that I cramped their hell-raising lifestyles, especially once I announced I was heading off to seminary after graduation. Nevertheless, the house chaplain was fairly powerful in that he got to determine who among the new pledges made it to the final initiation. Suddenly instead of being on the receiving end of ridicule, I was in the position to dish it out. So I did. I made those pledges miserable ordering them to do all sorts of silly and embarrassing tasks just because I could. Absolute power proved absolutely corrupting. Naturally the other brothers loved it. Maybe I wasn’t such a party-pooping Jesus freak after all.

Eventually, however, the pledges had enough. One night as I sleeping soundly in my dorm room bed, there came a gentle knock at my door. I groggily, and as it happened regrettably, said, “come in,” and before I could open my eyes completely, the light flashed bright as in burst 12 angry pledges who picked me up, tied me up and hauled me into the woods where they cast me into the outer darkness where there was no weeping and gnashing of teeth, but there were plenty of chiggers and ticks. I totally deserved it. It was my own little judgment day that came unexpectedly, just like Jesus said, like a thief in the night.

To read of Judgment Day just in the gospels is to read of deception, wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, betrayal, hatred, and wickedness, the blackening of the sun, moon and stars and the mysterious “abomination of desolation” followed by the terrifying parenthetical note: “let the reader understand.” No kidding. Please “let the reader understand!” But Jesus doesn’t clarify. He says only that when you see it, run. And pray you’re not pregnant and that it’s not winter. All sorts of false prophets will herald false messiahs with all sorts of false promises in order to sidetrack you. So “watch out,” Jesus says, “I have told you everything ahead of time.”

No you haven’t. You’ve only scared me to death. Author Annie Dillard once wondered if her Sunday School teachers knew what they were doing when they bade her to consume great chunks of the Bible and commit them to memory. She thinks that if they had read it, they would have hid it. She’s probably right. I remember first reading these scary Jesus words and deciding I was definitely doomed.

It’s easy to get the idea that Jesus is coming back to jerk a knot in your life. But the Bible is more about Jesus coming back to undo the knots you’ve already made in your life. His intent is not to catch you doing wrong but to keep you doing right. Advent is not an expectation of terror, but the glad expectation of salvation and joy. The entire Bible bends toward God’s final victory over sin and evil—including our own. But it’s a victory already won through the death and resurrection of Jesus. For those who are in Christ, new creation starts now. Judgment Day is mostly a mop up operation.

In the book of Revelation this mop up operation features a fiery Jesus galloping in on a stormy white stallion, making war on evil with a broadsword protruding out of his mouth. We read “he strike down the rebellious nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.” You hear the traces of Isaiah. The triumphant Jesus is the fruitful branch sprouted from Jesse’s stump. Jesse was the father of the iconic King David, the one in whose image the longed-for Messiah would come. That the stump is the stump of Jesse, however, suggests that the Messiah to come would not be a King David clone. He would be kingly and victorious alright, but his crown would have thorns and his victory a cross. Jesse’s family tree had been reduced to a stump due to the repeated failure of King David’s descendants—another reason why a brand new branch from Jesse was needed. This new branch bears fruit of the spirit: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” “Fear” refers to that healthy respect for God’s authority that elicits obedience and loyalty.

Full of the Spirit, Jesus judges not by what he sees (that is, by mere appearances); nor by what he hears (that is, by mere hearsay). Jesus judges with righteousness and integrity as belts around his waist. The meek and the poor are vindicated while the wicked get served their just desserts. Justice extends to the well-being of all creation. Swords get beaten into plowshares and lions become vegetarians. Predator and prey, leopards and kids, infants and adders are reconciled so securely that a child can lead and they will follow. They will follow along with the nations about whom we read from Isaiah 2 who say “Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk on his paths.” “No one will either harm (do what is wrong) or destroy (mar what is good) on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord, “for the earth will be full of a living knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

Friend and author Danielle Shroyer describes her son’s kindergarten Christmas program: A host of five- and six-year-olds, fidgeting on risers and fumbling with their little Christmas collars, big smiles on their faces and unashamed voices booming forth, singing, “You be the lion strong and wild, I’ll be the lamb, meek and mild; we’ll live together happily, ‘cause that’s how it ought to be.” And yet, she writes, “As I watched that throng of kindergartners singing, something immensely powerful washed over me; it was like a monsoon of hope and sadness, all these children so certain the world ought to be this way, and me so certain of all the ways it isn’t. It moved me to tears, really; a jumbled mix of bittersweet tears—Advent tears—for that long pause between what is and what should be, what is and what we Jesus-followers believe will be.

Here’s the hard thing about Isaiah 11 despite all of its poetic beauty and hope: a little child did come to lead us but we have yet to make it to God’s holy mountain. Cows graze in feed lots waiting to be processed into cheap hamburger beef. The lamb gets shorn to make clothes that will last less than a few seasons. Lions and leopards fill endangered species lists, hunted for their hides and due to the loss of their habitats. Children don’t come anywhere near a snake’s lair because they don’t play outside much anymore. The smog can get so thick you can’t even see mountains. And as for righteousness and justice? On Friday I sat alongside a number of Twin Cities leaders whose various non-profits remain overwhelmed by relentless needs only exacerbated by Christmas: veterans who can’t get health benefits, homeless families that can’t find work, victims of torture who can’t find solace, job assistance programs that helplessly watch state budget deficits deepen and partisan politics harden, all the while fueling an unjust disparity between rich and poor.

Shroyer writes, “We are so drunk on the process of hurting and destroying one another that we can no longer see past the ends of our military-might-political-fight-I-am-always-right noses. Death tolls rise, wars rage on, hunger and sickness strike day after day. We have lost sight of the mountain altogether. The little child has come to lead us, did we simply not follow?”

This is an Advent question. A Second Coming question asked by Jesus himself. In one of those haunting apocalyptic gospel passages, Jesus describes coming back in glory surrounded by angels with the nations gathered before him. He takes his seat as judge then separates people one from another, like a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. He issues his final decree—the last word—the rod of his mouth with which he strikes the earth in Isaiah; the double-edged sword that protrudes from his mouth in Revelation. One edge is reward for the righteous, “Come my blessed and take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison and you cared for me.” But the other edge is “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was in need and you did nothing.” The response of both sides is identical: shock. They never realized. “When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty, sick or imprisoned? When did we see you?” Jesus, pronouncing his solidarity with the powerless, replies: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did the same to me.” As the book of Hebrews explains, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Still, Advent is not an expectation of terror, despite the terrifying language. Isaiah writes that the fear of the Lord is to be our delight. Advent gets our attention in order to get us to take our grace seriously. Advent underscores two humbling realities: our sin is real—and in Christ, our sin is gone. New creation has already started. This is our delight. Judgment Day is a mop up operation. But until the last day, as new creations in Christ, we have to help with the mopping. To take grace seriously is to give grace to others.

As new creations in Christ, we live our lives as if the last day is today. On that day “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” Isaiah makes clear that Jesus the branch not only bears the fruit of the Spirit, but is the Spirit himself. “I am the root and the branch of David,” Jesus says in Revelation, “the bright morning star” that shines as a signal to all nations. The green light. A little child come to lead us. A Savior come to save us. A Spirit that fills us with a serious taste of grace. As we come to the communion table, let us taste that grace anew, let us follow the child and make it to the mountain.