After all the warnings. After all the arguments (even among religious leaders) about what would actually happen. There they were, in Babylon. Stunned. Numb. Silent in their anguish. This is where Advent starts. Numbness gives rise to lament; both from those carried away into exile, and those left behind (see Lamentations).
This is where we have to start. Unless we want Advent to be "countdown to Santa Claus," we need to begin with the acknowledgement of how truly broken both we and our world are. Advent means "coming." It is a focus on the "on it's way, but not yet"-ness of our faith. But it's not an ordinary “it’s on it’s way.” It is a coming that takes place in the middle of some of the worst of what can happen.
When we prepare for Advent, we do well to remember that the prophets that we quote to talk about this Coming were speaking to Israel in the midst of Exile. They anticipated that Exile was coming and tried to warn; they talked about it when it arrived; and they spoke of Hope while the Exile was still going on, not just to tell them it was on its way, but to help them prepare for it. It is exactly in Exile that there is this explosion of Prophecy of hopeful possibility....even when all the data on the ground speaks against it.
But that Hopefulness cannot happen without the acknowledgement of our reality. This is not a cheap grace; there are deep and dangerous words of warning to be spoken. Much of our ability to prepare for this Hope and to embrace its coming is based on our capacity to engage and acknowledge the depth of our pain and brokenness.
The first of the 12 Steps reflects this when we say, "We admitted that we were powerless and our lives had become unmanageable." It is only after this admission that we can hear the Hope of , "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Our behaviors have consequences. They make our lives powerless and unmanageable. The Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Heschel said we needed to remember that "God is not a nice uncle." God will be God; and God will not be mocked. It is dangerous to approach Advent or our life with God as though God is some sort of warm fuzzy that we can carry around in our pocket.
We cannot live our lives without consequences. We cannot have life on our terms:
We cannot smoke and smoke and smoke and not pay a price for it in our bodies.
We cannot pump toxins into the atmosphere and not pay for it in our environment.
We cannot continue to engage in personal sins until they become obsessive habits and not pay for it in the depths of our souls.
We cannot continue to treat others (Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, the poor, members of our families) without justice or mercy and not pay for it in the social fabric of our nation and our world.
We move from the initial numbness of a stark awareness of our condition into crying out. That cry creates cracks in the wall of denial we have built around ourselves, both personally and nationally. Leonard Cohen said, "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light breaks in." God used, and continues to use, our very brokenness; the places we are most wounded and ashamed of; as the place where God’s grace will break through and heal us….if we will acknowledge that the wounds are there. This is how God in Christ comes to us.
There are a lot of “Second Coming Christians” out there who pay lots of attention to scripture about the Second Coming of Jesus; but who don’t seem interested in what Jesus had to say the FIRST time He came. Could this be because we are more comfortable with a kind old uncle of a God than one who puts demands on our lives? Or is it that somewhere deep within us it is easier to focus out in a future after death, a future in which we don’t need to take any responsibility, than to look at our lives as this intense, demanding relationship with a God who is capable of creating miracles out of our wounded, aching lives.
This is the same question that haunts us all: whether Israel in exile or us in our own personal and national brokenness; can YHWH create a new history after the old history has come to a dismal end? Is the God of faith contained within what the world knows to be possible? Or is it within the capacity of God to create a newness that defies the categories of “possible” and reasonable acceptedness.
Scripture maintains, our faith maintains, that YHWH has the capacity to form new worlds out of the chaos at hand. The creator’s capacity to work a newness, unemcumbered by our failures and sinfulness; and unassisted by any other power, becomes a joyous assertion that YHWH will work a newness right in the midst of Israel’s most dire circumstances of grief.
In Advent we have the coming of Hope in the midst of numbing despair and brokenness. It is a Hope rooted in the freedom of God. We are saved by God’s faithfulness, not by our own; by God’s goodness and mercy, not by ours. Our Hope is not based in our ability, or our goodness, or even in our repentance; it is based solely on God's initiative, who acted and acts "while we were still sinners."