Shortly after I finished my Ramadan fast, I promised a reader that I would return with a series of Advent devotionals. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, marking the period of preparation for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. Now is the time to unveil my new series of daily reflections.
The word “advent” simply means “coming,” or “arrival.” Advent is not a penitential period, nor is it a mournful time. Instead, the feeling is one of joy and anticipation.
Truly, the most accurate thing to say about Advent is that it is a time of waiting.
But waiting for what?
The people who were alive in Jesus’ time were waiting for a Messiah, a sort of political-religious figure who would literally deliver the land of Israel from the rule of the occupying Romans. This is clearly seen in the reaction of Simeon and Anna, two old Israelites who see the baby Jesus in the Temple eight days after his birth (Luke 2:22-38). Simeon had been looking forward to the “consolation of Israel,” and is convinced that this child is the one who will usher in this new, golden age.
Yet, by the time Jesus is crucified on a cross by those same Romans, it has also become starkly apparent that he has not changed anything in the geopolitical landscape of the times. He has not raised an army, nor has he claimed any political position.
Jesus was and is, in fact, a different kind of Messiah. He was not precisely what people had been waiting for.
As we anticipate our own Christmas celebration in a few weeks, we must beware of waiting for the wrong kind of Jesus.
In this series, I plan to reveal a different sort of Jesus than you might be used to seeing. I want to meditate on the nature of this man who is referred to as “Prince of Peace” in one of the great Advent scriptures, Isaiah 9:6, in which the prophet exclaims, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
I am afraid that many of us skip over this title glibly; surely this refers to “inner peace,” not to something as concrete as the cessation of war. We are comfortable with a certain level of acceptable violence in society, believing it to be necessary to maintain civilization, and even consonant with certain attributes of God, such as his power and might.
But look at this Jesus who came to us. He came humbly, without force of arms, loving enemies, and welcoming strangers.
He came nonviolently.
That’s what we’re waiting for.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”Isaiah 42:1-4
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” goes an old Kenyan proverb.
Though I doubt the prophet Isaiah had ever heard this proverb, he makes an uncanny reference to it in the above text.
This passage comes from one of the four “Servant Songs” found in Isaiah, so-called because they refer to a future “servant” who will come and, through suffering, give new purpose and glory to God’s people. The earliest followers of Jesus read these passages as prophecies of Jesus, in contrast with some of the other prophecies in the Old Testament which speak of a conquering Messiah.
Jesus made a laughably awful Messiah, at least in the sense of being a military conqueror. He wore no uniform, raised no army, possessed no weapons.
He died a miserable death, and when he died, the Romans were still in power. Jesus’ movement never seemed to get off the ground, at least not from the perspective of the great expectations of a conquering Messiah.
But the “Servant Songs” seemed to match Jesus’ true modus operandi. In the passage quoted above, the servant is described as one who brings justice to the nations, but is strangely quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t shout loudly, doesn’t make a big show of his role, nor does he stand on his soapbox in the middle of town. He is so gentle that he doesn’t step on “bruised reeds,” nor does he blow out candles which are on the verge of being snuffed. In other words, no grass suffers.
This is the antithesis of the typical politician, general, or power-broker. This sounds like someone who would be completely ignored by the TV cameras, and overpowered by the rhetoric of the pundits. This is someone who wouldn’t even show up on our radar of our celebrity-obsessed landscape.
And that’s exactly the kind of person that Jesus turned out to be. He was largely overlooked by those in power, ignored by the cultural arbiters, dismissed by those in the know. He was instead incredibly popular with the masses, with the people down below. He was gentle with the bruised reeds of the day — children, the lame, lepers. He didn’t extinguish anyone’s hopes prematurely, nor did he dash the dreams of those who believed in the kingdom which he proclaimed. In fact, Jesus compared the kingdom to a mustard seed, the smallest and most inconsequential speck of them all.
From these humble beginnings, and from this meek man, came the revolution that truly upended everything, even though it seemingly ended with a whimper on Calvary. The kingdom which Jesus talked about has thrown everything upside down. The quietest whispers have become a roar in the ears of the powers-that-be; the smallest gestures of hospitality have frightened the armies of death; the tiniest ideas about love, humanity, freedom have been set into motion and put into practice.
And here’s the exciting conclusion — Jesus’ methods STILL work! In fact, Jesus’ methods and message are essentially the same. The powers of sin, evil, and death are defeated, not by grasping power, military invasion, or winged Marine angels. The only way to conquer these enemies is through nonviolent, suffering love.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way: “Somehow we must be able to stand up before out most embittered opponents and say we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force.”
That is precisely what Jesus did by permitting himself to be nailed to the cross. The crucifixion was Jesus’ great nonviolent victory.
And every victory left to be won against the enemies of peace must be won the same way.
Otherwise, we end up with fields of bruised reeds and stomped grass.
Link of the day: Where is the grass suffering in today’s world? The border areas of Pakistan are one such place. The elephants of the US and the terror organizations hiding inside Pakistan are tearing up huge chunks of land. One of the biggest and most dangerous elephants in this case is the US drone program, which has killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan since June 2004, of whom at least 474, and perhaps as many as 881, were civilians. A report on the program, Living Under Drones, released in September 2012, details the damaging effects of the strikes on the lives of innocent people in Pakistan, and raises the question for us whether Jesus would meet the threat of terrorism with drone strikes. Take action against the CIA’s unmonitored, unmanned drone program here.
Prayer: God, make me mindful not to break bruised blades of grass or to snuff out the brittle dreams of those who hunger for justice. Teach me how to endure suffering, and to match hate with love. In the name of the Prince of Peace, amen.