A Word to Advent and Christmas
As I was surveying the lectionary readings for Advent, in anticipation of preaching I will be doing, Romans 15:5-6 jumped out at me: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NRSVue).
I went to college back in the days when we still wrote physical letters. As you can imagine, my parents were much better at keeping in touch with me than I was at keeping in touch with them. My parents would tell me what was going on at home, in the neighborhood, at church, with other relatives, and with other friends; if I had asked them questions, their letters would have answers. Then, at the end of each letter – just before they would tell me that they love me and sign their name – my parents would or would remind me of things that I ought to do (“get more sleep,” “don’t forget to send a birthday thank you to your grandfather” — things like that), and they would give me encouragement (like “we are confident that you will settle on a major before you turn 30”).
The apostle Paul does much the same thing at the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome. He reminds them of things they ought to do (“welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you”), and he offers this encouragement, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another.”
Why is Paul optimistic that the people he is writing to – church people – will get along? Is it because church people are naturally nice people? No, not really. Give us a chance to be ourselves and we invariably go out of harmony.
Paul’s optimism arises from his trust in God, the God of steadfastness and encouragement. Godly harmony in the church resounds where Christians are so grateful for God’s generosity in Jesus Christ that they imitate God’s generosity. “Welcome one another,” Paul writes, “just as Christ has welcomed you.” That is “living in harmony with one another.”
How is this “living in harmony with one another” a word specifically to Advent and Christmas? Let me answer that.
As Fleming Rutledge writes, “Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent most closely mirrors the daily lives of Christians and of the church, asks the most important ethical questions, presents the most accurate picture of the human condition, and above all, orients us to the future of the God who will come again.”
Advent gives voice to our deepest fears, conflicts, and sorrows in its apocalyptic language of struggle against cosmic evil. “A Mighty Fortress” is not known as an Advent hymn, but Martin Luther captures Advent’s eschatological confidence in verse three:
Though all the world with devils fill
And threaten to devour us
We tremble not, we trust God’s will:
They cannot overpower us.
Though Satan rant and rage,
In fiercest war engage,
This tyrant’s doomed to fail;
God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word shall triumph.
Second, Advent engages us in purposeful waiting. I am one of those who believe that Advent tutors us spiritually in active anticipation, the discipline of living into an unfulfilling time with hope. Yes, I am one of those who feel more attuned to Advent when it is not interrupted by Christmas songs. Christmas will come; wait for it.
Third, historically, Advent is a penitential season, akin to Lent. As we prepare to recall God’s arrival as a human being in Jesus and to anticipate Jesus’ return at the end of time, we reflect on our sinfulness and need for a Savior.
Advent worship and devotion weave together these intersecting Advent characteristics: hope in the coming fullness of the reign of God even as we experience brokenness, struggle, and disillusionment now; the gift of purposeful waiting; and humble recognition that we need a Savior. These Advent characteristics are not simply for our spiritual wholeness as individuals; that would miss the point of God’s cosmic reign. They are for us as community — as church. They are necessary ingredients for “living in harmony with one another.”
I’m going to speak frankly here; we live in a cultural cesspool of anger, vicious speech, judgementalism, and hateful polarization into ideological silos. It is not confined to any one ideological perspective. And it sometimes seeps into our congregations. I am deeply grateful to God, that in our Central/Southern Illinois Synod, characteristics of Advent prevail, and God grants us to live in harmony with one another.
God bless your Advent and your Christmas. Not for your sake only, but far more broadly. The world profoundly needs Advent’s hope and Christmas’s fulfillment. May our witness, our embrace of Advent and Christmas, be a beacon for living in harmony with one another…so that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.