by Brian Walsh
Delivered at Wine Before Breakfast
9 December 2008
Advent is about a coming, and a longing for that coming.
The coming of the Messiah.
And while the church tends to focus on the beginning of that coming – the realization of that promise, the fulfillment of that longing, in the wondrous events surrounding the birth of Jesus – Israel’s hope for advent was focussed on the end of that coming.
You see, the focus of first century Jews wasn’t so much on the prophecy of Isaiah that “unto us a child is born” but on the apocalyptic vision of Daniel:
“I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion,
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed. (7.13-14)
Here is a vision, here is a hope, here is an advent worth longing for.
But Luke’s story about a child born in poverty to refugee parents and under the imperial rule of Augustus and his Judean henchmen seems to be an odd place for this vision to be realized. No son of man coming with the clouds of heaven, no royal pronouncements that the king is born and all the land rejoices. It would seem that this is a humbler and less auspicious advent.
Well, we’ve been following that story all semester at Wine Before Breakfast and this morning Jesus confronts his disciples, and he confronts us, with the full meaning of his Messiahship.
“Who do men say that I am?” he asks. If you look back just a few verses you will see that the answer that the disciples give Jesus is the same answer that folks were giving to Herod when he asked the same question about Jesus. “Some say you are John the Baptist” the one who Herod murdered, now resurrected, “some say you are Elijah, others say you are a prophet.”
In other words, people know that something is happening here, but they don’t know what it is, except that something big is going on, and that it is clearly connected to the tradition of the prophets – a tradition that whispers “Messiah” and ends up in Daniel’s vision of a son of man.
“So who do you say I am?” Jesus presses the question. And the answer here is immediate, “You are the Messiah of God.” You are the one in whom all our deepest hopes and longings will rest.
And Jesus tells them to keep this quiet.
Because here’s the real deal on the Messiah, here’s the real deal on this Son of Man who will come to have dominion over all the earth – he’s going to die! He’s going to walk a path of great suffering not immediate glory. He’s going to be rejected by the leaders of the covenant people, not welcomed with open arms. He’s going to be killed, not wage holy war on Israel’s enemies. And then, and only then, only after walking this path of death, will he defeat death through his resurrection.
Advent is about Messiah coming. And Jesus here is radically redefining what the coming of the Messiah will mean and will look like.
And before they could even respond – standing there with their mouths hanging open and with looks of confused incredulity on their faces – Jesus tells them that if this is what Messiahship is going to look like, then that will have equally radical implications for what discipleship to this Messiah will look like as well.
If you are to follow this Messiah, then you will have to follow in his path and embrace a suffering and a rejection and a dieing (with hope of resurrection) that is akin to his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection.
If you desire to follow me. If you desire for Messiah to come, if your hope for Advent is to survive this redefinition of Messiah, then you must deny yourself, deny and abandon your hope for quick glory, and walk his path by daily taking up the cross.
Take up your cross daily. Is Jesus likening discipleship to a walk down death row on the way to the execution chamber? Are we all “dead men walking” when we embrace this Jesus? Is that what Advent really means?
In a word, “yes.” There is no Son of Man coming on the clouds, there is no everlasting dominion, no indestructible kingship that undermines and replaces all oppressive and imperial rule, apart from a cross.
But here is the wonderful paradox. Here is the amazing reversal that we have come to expect from this Jesus, from this Messiah. “If you want to save your life”, if you want to somehow guarantee your life and your prosperity, if you want to hang on to control of your life, and somehow manage advent, somehow achieve the realization of your deepest hopes apart from this Messiah walking this path of suffering, then you will in fact lose your life. You’ll lose it all.
But if you lose it all for the sake of Jesus, if you abandon all such self-sufficient and self-satisfying paths and embrace this Jesus, following his path of redemptive suffering, then what really happens is that you find your life.
Do you get it? On one hand Jesus is telling them, and clearly telling us, that discipleship is a matter of cross-bearing. Discipleship requires the willingness to let it all go, to so radically submit ourselves to his path that any terms by which the world would define our success or even our fulfillment are abandoned and we are willing to take whatever judgement, scorn, abuse or suffering that the world – both outside, and also deeply within our own conflicted selves – will lay upon us.
But Jesus is not saying that we are to live lives of depressing and oppressive pain, always finding that we are in a battle between what we really want and what he wants.
No, he says, if your desire is to follow me, if that is your deepest desire, if that is what shapes your advent hope this year and throughout your lives, then come and walk my path and you will discover your deepest self, your deepest joy, your deepest sense of who you are – who we are – as full human beings, full sons and daughters of men and women.
If you desire to follow me and are willing to follow the path of the cross, then your deepest desires, your most authentic desires, the desires that are implanted in you as a child of God, will be most wonderfully realized.
I mean, what’s the point, what the good, what’s the profit of gaining the whole world – and surely gaining the whole world was integral to this vision of the coming Messiah’s dominion over all things – if it results in losing your very selves, your very identity as God’s people, your very identity as full human beings subject to the kingdom of this Messianic king?
Don’t you see that this path of dominion, this path of gaining the world, actually is a path of forfeiture? You gain the world but you forfeit your life, you lose your very self, because one can only have legitimate place in this coming kingdom if one walks the path of the Messiah who brings such a kingdom – and that is the path of the cross.
Of course, this is all shameful talk. Talk of a Messiah who doesn’t first rule, but first suffers? That is beneath any self-respecting Jew in the first century, and it is pernicious nonsense to anyone who understands rule, power and control today – whether in the academy, in personal relations, in business or on Parliament Hill.
And yet Jesus says, if you are ashamed of this vision; and more pointedly, if you are ashamed of me, the one you have just identified as Messiah, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in his glory, and the glory of the Father, and the glory of the angels. Make no mistake, Daniel’s prophecy will be fulfilled, such redemptive and restorative dominion, rule and authority will be realized – there will be glory – but not without a cross.
That is why those advent candles illuminate this table. Miss that connection and you will miss advent. There can be no advent without Easter. There can be no Messiah without the cross. There can be no discipleship and no finding of life, without denying ourselves and picking up our cross daily and following Jesus.
Come, Lord Jesus. And come sisters and brothers, come and follow the Messiah. Amen.