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Advent and Incarnation: What Comes Next?

Michelangelo Last Judgment
Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, 1536-1541 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 4 of an Advent series on incarnation; read part 1 here, part 2 here. and part 3 here

Over the last three posts, I’ve talked about some of the ramification of the Incarnation — for bodies, for systems of belief, for women. But Advent is about both the already and the not yet: the world in which we live and believe and work and grieve and laugh, and the fully redeemed world for which we hope. Advent asks us to remember that Christ came, as a baby in a stable, and that he will one day come again.

Advent asks us to hold together the past and future, to step for a moment out of the linear time of alarm clocks and shopping days that rules our daily lives. Advent reminds that we are waiting for the coming savior, like Anna and Simeon at the temple, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the prophets of old.

And Advent should remind us that when the savior comes, it may not look like we expect.

The Christmas story is so familiar to most of us as to be almost banal. The manger, the shepherds, the wise men — we know the drill. Plus, we’re used to the sanitized version, the adorable kids in lamb costumes, the nativities carefully unwrapped from tissue paper. Even if we understand how radical it was for Christ, the creator of the universe, to be born to a humble family in the humblest of circumstances, it can be hard to fully grasp how different this was from how most first-century Jews would have imagined the birth of their savior.

But we should be humbled by this reminder: how might Christ’s second coming look different from what we imagine? And I don’t just mean different from the predictions of a Harold Camping or Hal Lindsey (or, dare I say, a Tim LaHay and Jerry B. Jenkins). If God first came in the humblest possible manner, and proceeded to live a life amongst the poor and oppressed and sinful people of a conquered territory, what does this suggest about his second coming?

In the Nicene Creed, we affirm that Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead — and if we’re honest, we either ignore that part (judgment is often unpleasant) or assume that it will apply to others: Christ will judge people who actually deserve it, a group that surely does not include us. I think it’s plain old human nature to assume that Jesus will affirm our rightness, or at least extend us grace, while hoping (secretly or not) for him to condemn others.

But the New Testament is full of warnings about judgment: I mentioned the passage in Matthew last week, where Jesus sends away those who did not feed the hungry or clothe the naked because what they did not do “to the least of these” they did not do to Christ. Matthew 7 even more clearly states that not everyone who says “lord, lord” to Jesus will be saved. In 1 John 3, the apostle John warns us that if we do not love we are murderers — and that we must love with actions, not just words.

These are uncomfortable passages, especially for us sola fide protestants; they carry the impression that our actions, and not just our mental faith furniture, matter for our salvation.

I’m not here to tear down one of the pillars of the Reformation, although I will note that orthodox Christianity in all its forms affirms both truths that only God can save and that our actions here on earth matter. So when we think of Christ returning in glory and judgment, we have to consider our own actions and how they align with the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated with his first coming.

And what does that kingdom look like? What sort of world do we see Jesus pointing towards in his time on earth?

It’s a kingdom of healing, both physical and spiritual. It’s a kingdom of grace for sinners. It’s a kingdom that has no place for the rich and prideful, for those who jockey for positions of power and authority, for those who place heavy religious burdens on the backs of others. It’s a kingdom inherited by the meek, built by the peacemakers, inhabited by the poor in spirit. It’s a kingdom where a worker can get a full day’s wage for just a few hours of work, where a heartbreaking disappointment of a son is welcomed home with open arms, where each individual matters regardless of their station in life.

If that’s the kingdom that Christ inaugurated with his incarnation, death and resurrection, his return will likely also disrupt and upend the systems that seem so natural and right to us today. And so even as we hope and long for Christ’s return, we must do so with humility and the sober awareness that we might just be the Romans and the Pharisees rather than the least of these.

This is a challenge for me, to be sure. Tidy categories of right and wrong make judgment much easier to contemplate. And believing the right thing is simpler than doing the right thing. I do believe that sin exists and that beliefs matter. But as I’ve discussed in the last several posts, the Incarnation means that we cannot stop at belief; what we do with our bodies in the physical world also matters. As members of the already-and-not-yet kingdom, we will inevitably fail to fully live into the tangible peace and justice and love of that kingdom — but we are to try anyway.

So this Advent season, may we remember Jesus' first coming and look forward to his second. And may we remember that his first coming upended any conventional idea about what it would mean for God to dwell among us, as one of us. Let us not become complacent that our right beliefs will insulate us from judgment, and let us not grow weary in doing good.

Tagged: advent | theology | Jesus