Advent: Being Present with the Absent God

Jason Micheli —  November 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

My podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice are launching a daily devotional for the season called Advent Begins in the Dark: Reflections to Ready Us for the Not Yet. We’ve invited guest contributors like Bishop Will Willimon, Sarah Condon and Joshua Retterer of Mockingbird, and Scott Jones of New Persuasive Words along with a host of others. You can find each day’s offering and subscribe to receive them by email at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com: here. You can also join our private Facebook group for more discussion.

Here’s the first reflection:

It took less than an hour for an Iowa jury to find a 28-year-old Iowa father guilty of murder after his 4-month-old son was found dead in a motorized swing last year.

Zachary Koehn was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. On Aug. 30, 2017, authorities arrived to the home of Koehn and 21-year-old Cheyanne Harris and discovered the lifeless body of their son, Sterling Koehn, in the swing. Autopsy results report that medical examiners found “maggots in various stages of development” in the boy’s “clothing and on his skin.” The diaper’s contents irritated the baby’s skin, causing it to rupture, after which E. coli bacteria set in. 

The prosecutor distilled the shock in his opening statement:

“He died of diaper rash.”

The baby, who weighed less than 5 lbs. at death, was left in the baby swing for over a week. He was not bathed or changed that entire time. The county sheriff told jurors he found maggots and larva when the medical examiner began to remove the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing from the child. 

Outside the Church, it’s nearly Thanksgiving. 

A time to give thanks.

For all our many blessings, we say.

Inside the Church, it’s nearly Christ the King Sunday and, with it, and the advent of Advent, the end of the liturgical year and the start of a new one. It’s a pivot point in the calendar when Christians are at their most counter-cultural.

The turning of the Christian year, Fleming Rutledge notes, takes us to “the bottom of the night.”

Advent, says Fleming, begins in the dark and ends on Christmas Day with the infant shepherd’s flock hearing about the monsters that were gathered at his manger.  I remember my homiletics professor at Princeton, James Kay, passing out to us in class a xeoroxed copy of that sermon. I thought then that Fleming was a man.  

Advent begins in the dark— every Advent the prophets of old and the last prophet, John the Baptist, force us to look unblinkingly at the darkness of the human predicament, which is to say the darkness of every human heart. Unlike the culture, gratitude is not why Christians gather this season. Instead it’s a season where Christians bravely insist on practicing something like ungratitude, taking a grim look at the world as we have made it and demanding that God in his “goodness” get his a@# back here— as promised— and make right the wrong we have wrought.  

The final book of the Christian Old Testament is the Book of Malachi, which ends by announcing that all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be burned up on Judgment Day. The Christian Bible turns, in other words, on the longing for a redeemer to rectify not only us in our sin but a creation captive to the Power of Sin. The turning of Christians’ year mimics the turning of our scripture. In Advent we do not— as popularly misunderstood— prepare ourselves for the rehearsal of Christ’s first coming; no, in Advent we rehearse the righteous rage of the prophets who anticipated Christ’s first coming in order to long for his promised coming again. Advent is when the Church takes a grim look at ourselves and the world we’ve made in our own image and we call due the IOU sworn by the second coming. The collect for the First Sunday of Advent prays thusly:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to rectify

Advent is when the Church acknowledges the lack in us, an emptiness which pours out into the darkness of our world.

Advent is when we remind ourselves— or try to convince ourselves— that God gives a crap about it all.

It’s already Advent, Fleming argues, noting how the assigned readings for the Church this time of year already take a turn to the apocalyptic. Just last Sunday Jesus was giving a widow a “bless her heart” for giving a mite out of her lack. In this Sunday’s Gospel lection, Jesus is warning about the coming of the end: 

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

This must take place, Jesus says as though he too had read that story about little Sterling left to rot and then to die in his swing. 

Forget all the lies told by the Left Behind types and the hucksters on Trinity Broadcasting.

Advent is the season when Christians celebrate that the specter of the end is good news. The God who promises that in Christ there is now nor never any condemnation will not sit idle forever and let us condemn his creation. His cousin was right from the very beginning. The Lamb who took away our sins in his body on a tree will one day return to take away forever the Pharoah called Sin and rectify all the damage done by his reign.

Jason Micheli

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