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  • Writer's pictureSteven Marsh

Worshipping–Boasting is Prohibited: a Reflection on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 1

This is the first Sunday in Advent. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines advent, in its first meaning, as the Season before Christmas. The second meaning of the word denotes the first and second coming of Christ. The third and final meaning of advent is the arrival of an important person. When we celebrate Advent, do we accurately portray the person of advent?

Preparing for the radical in-breaking of God into our experience is the task at hand. Advent is the time in the church year when Christians prepare to receive the Christ child and the reshaping of history God accomplished. The incarnation, God coming to earth in the form of human, should cause each one of us to bow in worship. What’s at stake for us to live this way? A life grounded in worship of the Triune God. According to Mark Labberton, author of The Dangerous Act of Worship, “Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in our lives that seek righteousness and justice…Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.”[1] Advent is a dangerous time in the church year, because we come face to face with our acknowledgement of who God is. It’s upfront and personal. God entered an unjust world to bring about justice, as we participate with God to restore humanity and creation.

It’s possible to be so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good. But Professor Todd Whitmore from Notre Dame has also observed how being heavenly-minded can lead to incredible deeds of earthly goodness. After the war in Uganda had dragged on for over 20 years, Whitmore moved into the refugee camps in northern Uganda to hear the stories of the displaced Acholi people. As he observed the Christians who were working among the Acholi, he saw what he called “what real Christianity looks like.” Whitmore discovered that the most practical and helpful workers among the Acholi were also the most heavenly-minded. He called them “reasonable apocalyptists,” which means that these Christian workers thought a lot about God’s intervention at the end of history. These heavenly-minded Christians believed that no human effort could be relied upon to help the Acholi; it had to come from God. As one of the Christian workers in the camps said, “God is tired [of this war and suffering], and he will intervene.” Because they believed that God would intervene, they also believed that it’s worthwhile to work for good. In the United States, people who talk about God’s future intervention are often accused of being escapists, impractical, or even mentally unstable. But in the refugee camps of northern Uganda they were the most rational people. Whitmore discovered that they were the ones who kept saying things like, “We want to make a difference here and now. We want to help with the orphans.”[2]

At Advent, we prepare to receive, again, the gifts and promises that God the Father, gives us through God the Son, Jesus Christ. The incarnation is crucial for our identity as humans. Charles L. Campbell writes, “Giving thanks for a congregation’s gifts and promise provides one way to begin building up the community of faith, even in the midst of conflict and division.”[3] God entered history at a very conflicted time. And the same is true today. Prepare to be met by God in the coming of Jesus Christ.

The lectionary readings in Psalms, Isaiah, and Mark confirm the point made in 1 Corinthians 1:3-9: grace is the power for faithful living. First, as the psalmist reminds us, it is the gaze of God that restores us. Grace empowers discipleship. Second, it is God who does the work. The prophet Isaiah notes that God does not belong to us and we do not control God. Grace creates a new kind of community. And third, without the birth of Jesus there is no possibility for resurrection.[4] In the gospel reading, Mark emphasizes that grace is the source for all that we think, say, and do to live the way of Jesus. Tending to grace is crucial in building a community of the faithful.

Advent announces a new beginning. Look to Jesus. Depend on Jesus, not self. Fix your eyes on the gaze of Jesus. Who is this Jesus on whom we fix our eyes on his gaze? Well…

There’s Republican Jesus—who is against tax increases and activist judges, for family values and owning firearms.

There’s Democrat Jesus—who is against Wall Street and Wal-Mart, for reducing our carbon footprint and printing money.

There’s Therapist Jesus—who helps us cope with life’s problems, heals our past, tells us how valuable we are and not to be so hard on ourselves.

There’s Spirituality Jesus—who hates religion, churches, pastors, priests, and doctrine, and would rather have people out in nature, finding “the god within” while listening to ambiguously spiritual music.

There’s Revolutionary Jesus—who teaches us to rebel against the status quo, stick it to the man, and blame things on “the system.”

There’s Good Example Jesus—who shows you how to help people, change the planet, and become a better you.

And then there’s Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Not just another prophet. Not just another Rabbi. Not just another wonder-worker. He was…[God] in the flesh; the one to establish God’s reign and rule; the one to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, freedom to the prisoners and proclaim Good News to the poor; the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.

This Jesus was the Creator come to earth and the beginning of a New Creation. He embodied the covenant, fulfilled the commandments, and reversed the curse. This Jesus is the Christ predicted through the Prophets and prepared for through John the Baptist.

This Christ is not a reflection of the current mood or the projection of our own desires. He is our Lord and God. He is the Father’s Son, Savior of the world, and substitute for our sins—more loving, more holy, and more wonderfully terrifying than we ever thought possible.[5]

Advent, from the Latin, Adventus, means “coming.” In Christianity, then, advent commemorates the coming of Jesus Christ. Advent is observed as a time of preparation not only for Christmas, but also for the Second coming of Christ as Judge at the Last Day.

It is Jesus, the Creator come to earth, the One who began a New Creation, who is the focus of our worship. In Jesus Christ we are blessed, challenged, and gifted. The creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life is the foundation of our worship. That blessing, challenge, and gifting is for the sake of others.

[1]Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 13.

[2]Adapted from Jason Bayassee, “Eschatological Innovation,” Faith & Leadership (8-4-09).

[3]Charles L. Campbell in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 15. 

[4]I am grateful for insights gleaned from Charles Wood, Scott Bader-Saye, Christopher R. Hutson, and Charles L. Campbell in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 8, 17, 19, and 25.

[5]Adapted from Kevin Young, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” from his DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed blog (posted June 10, 2009).

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