Advent Hope Is Not

tinsel, market projections, gift cards -- no.

Advent hope is not that a pretty baby will appear in the manger and sales will rise and the economy will resurrect. Advent hope is that empires will fall: all empires, with their idolatry, their gluttony, their pollution, their wars, their intrigue, their murder, and their weapons. . . . Advent hope is that our own empire will fall, and our own idolatry cease.
— Shelley Douglass

Advent hope is that our own empire will fall,

and our own idolatry cease.


"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your King comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim,
and the war-horses of Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth."

The Word is With

In the beginning, there was darkness. Then God spoke and He said, "Let there be light!" and His voice boomed through the primordial emptiness. And that voice became light, each syllable bright, each sound radiating. His word was light. "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day..." (Genesis 1)

In the hot desert of Midian, God spoke from a blazing tree. His words were fire and flame. "Moses, Moses. I AM that I AM..." (Exodus 3)

Atop the towering Mount Sinai, the Word of God came with a smoky cloud of darkness and a blasting trumpet. The Word of God was given in etched stone, finger drawn on two tablets. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me..." (Exodus 20)

Through David, the word of the LORD came in meter and time, in rhythm and Hebrew rhyme. It came in song and in poetry. God's word in verse and sung with notes in human voices. "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness...!" (Psalm 29)

To Elijah, the word of God came in a still, small voice. "What are you doing here, Elijah?..." (1 Kings 19)

To Jeremiah, God's word came as a fire in his bones, as an internal burning passion, as a declaration which could not be kept silent. God's word was trouble and persecution, it was a dug-out pit and a kidnapping to Egypt. It was words spoken to a deaf and endangered people: "Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord!..." (Jeremiah 51)

God's word was to Daniel visions and dreams. God's word was a statue and a rock, it was beasts and water and it was measured in weeks and days. "Unto two thousand three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed..." (Daniel 8)

And the word of God to Hosea was an unfaithful wife, it was illegitimate children, it was loving the adulteress again and again. "I will marry you to me forever. I will marry you in righteousness and in justice and in lovingkindness. I will marry you in faithfulness and you will know the LORD..." (Hosea 2)

God's word came to Nehemiah as the permission of a Persian king and as a building of a broken down wall. "I had not told anyone what God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem..." (Nehemiah 2)

It came to the writer of Chronicles through dusty old history books in which were written the deeds of the kings. "Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah..." (2 Chronicles 20)

And God's word came through Joel and Micah, through Haggai and Zecharaiah and through Malachi and Amos. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5)

>> "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being..." (Hebrews 1:1-3a)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-5, 9-14)

The Word made flesh—what an astounding thing! The Word made like us and with us and among us! >> That Word speaks to us the most significant message: Immanuel, God with us.

God with us: this is the central miracle of Christmas, the locus of our wonder.

    Two thousand years on this side of the Incarnation and Christmas is for us much about lights and candy canes and stockings and jingle bells. And I love all of those things about Christmas! But in the last week I’ve been thinking about the Incarnation in a different light. 

    The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri have reappeared in the news these last two weeks as it was announced that the police officers who killed them would not be indicted and brought to trial. Protests have filled the streets of the cities across our nation. Simultaneously, political pundits and talk show hosts have exchanged opinions, throwing praise and condemnation for the officers, for the rioters and protesters, for the dead men. Your Twitter feed and Facebook feed have likely surged with opinion pieces, snarky rejoinders, ALL CAPS COMPLAINTS, and political cartoons about police brutality, thugs, racism, justice and injustice. 

    So as we’re entering the Christmas season of cheer, I have death on my mind. I have on my mind the names of dead men—of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Ezell Ford—just 5 of those killed by police in recent months, unarmed young black boys and men. I have in my ears the cries of those black and brown voices who are threated by police, not always protected by them. I have on my heart the weight of a real history of inequality and injustice, of state violence against black bodies, of popular pathologizing of black minds, of criminalization of black communities. 

    And I wonder: What does the Word-made-flesh have to say to our world this Christmas season? This December, as we watch our sensationalist news programs and see our Christian acquaintances exchange acerbic commentary across our computer screens, what does the Word-made-flesh have to say? What does it have to say but that which it has always said in the largest possible letters?: Immanuel, God with us. 

    That Word says that God is compassionate. Compassion means to suffer with. God suffers with. He sees our pitiful position. He hears our hurts and our long songs of lament. He has made Himself woundable and He is wounded. Scripture says, “Jesus saw the large crowd and had compassion on them” (Mark 6:34); it says that “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7); it says that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35); it says that “Since the children have flesh and blood he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15). 

    So even now we may entrust our laments to Immanuel. We may cry to him in our pain and know that He hears us, and that He feels that pain too. We may mourn for our neighbors, our brothers, our sons and know that we do not weep unseen and alone. God is with us, suffering with us. 

    And it would be enough unexpected grace to know that God cared from a distance. But the Word of Immanuel preaches a greater message still: God with us, not only in compassion, but in real presence. God makes Himself present. God with us. God, the high and holy one, with us, the lowly and wicked ones. God, the unbounded and infinite one, with us, the fragile and feeble ones. God, the powerful and majestic one, with us, the human dust particles on one of His tiny planets in one of His little galaxies. God with us. 

    The Word-made-flesh says particularly that God is with the weak. It’s why He came to us. While we were yet powerless, while we were still sinners, His enemies, God came to be with us. And the consistent picture of Scripture is that God is with the weak, and this picture comes into crystal clear focus in the Incarnation. Listen to the song Jesus’ mother sang (Luke 1:46-53). “...He remembered the humble state of His servant… He has scattered those who are proud… He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Over and over and over and over again God has spoken of His concern for the weak, for the poor, for the outcast, for the outsider. But in these last days He has spoken by His Son, and He has said in no uncertain terms that He is on the side of those without power. 

    God goes to the suffering, God meets the lonely, God cries with the crying, God overthrows the rulers, God exalts the lowly, God liberates the oppressed, God punishes the unjust, God comforts the poor. 

    Oh, that we might be like this, our God! Oh, that we would be less impressed by the powerful and more impressed with the poor! Oh, that we might love justice and labor against injustice! Oh, that we would love like He loves! Oh, that we would go where He goes! 

    But we are hard-hearted. We will not listen to each other. We would rather post scathing blogs than have a conversation. We will lock our doors against those who say they feel unsafe. We will travel across town to avoid hearing a nuanced story. We will blame the dead and ignore the living. We will not choose charitable speech. We will offer contempt instead of compassion. We will distance ourselves from those who disagree. We will yell far that people are racists; we will loudly accuse people of race-baiting.

    Will we let the Word-made-flesh speak to us this Christmas? Will we hear His message of compassion, of presence, of solidarity with the weak? The second Person of the Trinity humbles Himself; He shrinks Himself down to dwell in Mary’s womb; He binds Himself to humanity with an umbilical cord; He gasps for air and cries for milk.

    Will we see in His humility a call to be compassionate, to be present, to be in solidarity with the weak? Will we wonder not only at the miracle of His physical body, but at the miracle of His Spirit-ual Body, the Body which we are?---and will we honor that miracle by dwelling together in the bond of peace? 

Photo by ginosphotos/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by ginosphotos/iStock / Getty Images

    Will we worship this infant King, and then follow Him?

    We were impressed by the burning bush and the pillar of fire. We thought God was close in the Angel and in the Shekinah. But God wanted to be closer still. God-nearby-us wasn’t good enough for him. He gave Himself to become God-with-us. Glory! Alleluia! Amen! Now go and do thou likewise.

Women in Ministry: not our rights, but His

In the conversations surrounding ordination and specifically the ordination of women to gospel ministry, many things need improvement, chief among them our lack of charity toward one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, members of the same Body. Today, though, I want to address what I see as the primary defect in the argument in favor of women's ordination

Many of the voices advocating for women in ministry, women in church leadership, and/or women's ordination are shouting in the key of feminism, overwhelming questions of Scripture and tradition with objections about RIGHTS and EQUALITY and FREEDOM. This is a fundamentally flawed posture toward ministry. Certainly, concerns about rights and equality and freedom have their places, but, equally as certain, their place is not at the front of an argument about ministry. 

We church-y people seem to have forgotten what "ministry" means. It literally means service. It is the servant's task to minister. The most basic idea about ministry is that it is not a right. One more time, to let it sink in: Ministry is not a right. More than that, gospel ministry is a calling, so that those who have received the call are compelled to fulfill it. As the apostle Paul says, 

Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, because I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I were preaching voluntarily, I would deserve a reward; but if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
— 1 Corinthians 9:16-17

Paul did not have a right to be an apostle, though he was one. He was an apostle by virtue of his calling. (Note–of course!–that it was this apostolic calling that afforded him certain rights as an apostle. Read both of the Corinthian letters to see this fully developed, but look especially at 1 Cor 9).  Paul did not have a right to preach, he had a commission to preach! This commission meant suffering, it meant financial and material loss, it meant the loss of friends, it meant repeated prayers that he would be bold in this intimidating task (Eph 6:19-20). 

Those who advocate for full and equal participation in gospel ministry for both women and men are missing the point if they think that this is an issue of women's rights in the same way that equal pay and freedom from sexual harassment is an issue of equal rights. This is a misguided idea because, again, ministry is not a right. It is a calling. The language of "rights" rings hollow and worldly when we are talking about picking up the mantle of service. 

We need to be be far, far less worried about women's rights in this discussion, and far, far more concerned with the right of the Holy Spirit to call, compel, and commission whom He will. 

the Spirit moves wherever He pleases (John 3:8)

Those who oppose women in church leadership are very happy to cast the entire question as an outgrowth of secular feminism. There was, you may remember, an in/famous sermon on this topic by an influential Adventist preacher in which he spent several minutes talking about the feminism of mid-century and pinpointed it as the source of this question. Of course, this is a red herring, as the issue of women in church leadership goes waaaaaaayyyyyy earlier than that. The Adventist church was talking about it in the 1880s and it had nothing to do with voting rights or bra burnings. (Discrediting the cause by linking it to 1970s feminism is also a genetic fallacy, but few people seem to care about that either.)

The question is not about who has the right to choose ministry for themselves. The question is about God's right to choose whom He will. 

This post is not a close examination of the biblical texts under dispute, nor a scrutiny of history for clues about the permissibility of women in ministry, women in church leadership, or women's ordination to gospel ministry. Those are very worthy investigations and I have done them myself. From that study and in prayer I have come to the conclusion that spiritual gifts (among them apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, pastoring and teaching [Eph 4:11]) are not given on the basis of gender, but as the Spirit wills (1 Cor 12:11), and that spiritual gifts and calling are given on the basis of our shared participation in Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13); this shared participation, this being "in Christ," means "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus... heirs according to the promise." (Gal 3:28-29)

Therefore, it is my view that the Holy Spirit may call some women into leadership among His people (Miriam, Deborah). He may call some women to instruct men in the gospel (Priscilla). He may call some women to be prophets (Huldah, Anna, Phillip's daughters). He may call some women to be apostles (Junia). And it is His right to do so.

Recognizing the Holy Spirit-ordination of women into the gospel ministry with full ecclesial authorization (what we currently call "ordination") is important because to reject, de-legitmate, or neglect His movement is an affront to the Spirit's authority and to His right to do with us whatever He wants. If He wants to give a frail 17-year-old a vision for the little flock, we should honor His right to do so, and pay attention! If He wants to use two young upstarts to bring the truth of justification by faith in 1888, we should recognize His full right and authority to do so, and pay attention! If He chooses a woman to preach the gospel, to lead a congregation, to instruct youth in the Scriptures, to disciple, to represent His redemption drama in their lives–well, we better say Yes to His decision. Ellen White didn't have a right to become a prophet. Jones and Waggoner didn't have a right to preach the message of justification by faith. And nobody in the world has a right to shepherd God's people and represent His remnant church.

But we all have a holy obligation to recognize the Spirit's right to anoint His sons and His daughters.

Desiring to be Desired

photo by Paula Leme //

What is love? 

It's a hard word to define, isn't it? French philosopher Yann Dall'Aglio has defined it as "desiring to be desired." (Or in the words of Cheap Trick: "I Want You to Want Me").

Playing with this brief definition for a minute can help us understand ourselves in our world, an aim which Dall'Aglio makes his own. He says that in the modern world our need for love, "desiring to be desired," has created a seduction economy, in which we frantically collect things that we think will make us desirable. In his TEDxParis talk he says: 

It is said in this consumption that our age is materialistic. But it’s not true! We only accumulate objects to communicate with other minds. We do it to make them love us, to seduce them. Nothing could be less materialistic or more sentimental than a teenage boy buying a pair of new jeans and tearing them at the knees –for Jennifer.
— Yann Dall'Aglio

Dall'Aglio is not offering a religious definition of love and the one he offers isn't robust enough to serve that lofty purpose. Still, his brief definition of love is certainly part of what the fullest definition would include, so take one moment to consider it––

God loves you.
He desires that you would desire Him.
When He thinks about you (all the time), He hopes that you would think of Him, that you would turn toward Him, that you might say His name, might say thank you, might tell Him what's on your mind, might smile when you consider His gifts, might yearn for Him, might be with Him. 
He desires that you would desire Him. 

Our Redeemer thirsts for recognition. He hungers for the sympathy and love of those whom He has purchased with His own blood. He longs with inexpressible desire that they should come to Him and have life. As the mother watches for the smile of recognition from her little child, which tells of the dawning of intelligence, so does Christ watch for the expression of grateful love, which shows that spiritual life is begun in the soul.
— Ellen G White, Desire of Ages (191)