[Christ the King Sunday 2020, Romans 8:31-39]
I got a phone call from a friend I’ve known for half my life who, like many of us, is having a bad year. Amid the pandemic, his small business is barely scraping by, his marriage has ended, and his mind, body, and soul all seem turned against him. He said he felt hopeless, and didn’t know what to do.
He’s not the only one whose 2020 is wrapping up like this. I’m guessing his story resonates on some level with most of you. It’s been a bad year. COVID-19 numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to rise, all of which is politicized in an election year in a way that has divided not just the nation, but our local communities, and even our families. The isolation and chronic disappointment over things cancelled, closed, or changed, it all takes its toll, and then especially in this recent wave, more and more of us are hearing of friends, family, and neighbors who have tested positive or have otherwise fallen on hard times, my family included.
Funerals have been delayed, wedding plans changed or cancelled, businesses strained and closed, rampant unemployment, and there’s little to no confidence in what the next month or year may hold.
It has affected the church drastically and changed how we do things in ways that are likely very long-lasting if not permanent. Youth ministry, children’s ministry, small group ministry, worship, evangelism, these things may never be the same again in our lifetime.
And it’s all kind of caught under the banner of 2020. As a pastor I witness a lot of it: isolation, frustration, estrangement, divorce, mental breakdown, profound disappointment, and, well, death. These things happen every year, but this year is different. And now the holidays are here and none of it is going to be the same as we’re used to.
The Year of our Lord 2020 has been a bad year by most measures, and unfortunately there’s no light switch that’s going to get flipped on New Year’s Day 2021, you know? The difficulty and suffering of our time is not bound by our calendar.
So, what are we to say about these things? That’s the Apostle Paul’s rhetorical question in today’s reading. What are we to say about these things?
To know what these things are, you have to read the first seven chapters of Romans. The letter starts by laying out the human condition. Essentially, says Paul, what’s clear about humans, from the scriptures and from experience, is that we sin, and we die. For Paul these two phenomena are best understood as forces, synonymous forces, along with the Devil, the empire, evil, suffering, and pain, it’s all what Paul calls the Principalities and Powers of Sin and Death.
These principalities and powers have power over our lives, our wills. Our existence is not something we have power over, in fact, apart from Christ, we are slaves to the power of Sin and Death. That is our condition.
But, says Paul, we really only know all of this because God has shown us something else.
God has shown Light into the grim shadows of sin and death. God gives us a Word, and it is ultimately only in the Word of God spoken to us that we come to see ourselves as we truly are. It is only the Light which God shines which exposes the truth, that we are not in control and that things are not the way they should be. This Word, this Light, it is God’s light, and it shines nowhere more fully than in the person of Jesus Christ whose light entered even death only to light a path beyond it. Dying Christ endured and destroyed death, and rising he redeemed and restored life.
In Christ God speaks to us a Word that is the only thing that can ultimately rescue us, a Gospel, good news, that is the only news that is worth hearing. This Word spoken in Christ, says Paul, is this: God is for us. That’s what Christ reveals, what the Word of God reveals, in a world where we are overcome by sin and death, hear the Good News. God is for us. Therefore, says Paul, if God is for us, who could be against us?
That’s a lot, I know, but I’m trying to summarize seven chapters here… To help us understand his point Paul uses three analogies. He says in Christ God has been revealed to be like a good spouse, a nurturing new mother, and an adoptive father. And he does so with otherworldly beauty and skill in his writing.
But, the question begs itself: if all of that is true… if God is a good spouse, a nurturing mother, the father of our adoption, if Christ has been raised from the dead and reigns on high as King of the Cosmos, then why are we still living among the empire of Sin and Death? If all of this good stuff is true, in a year like 2020, then what are we to say about all these things?
Paul is not afraid of this question and neither do we need to be. Paul is just one of the first among many Christians whose faith is confronted with the harsh reality that even though we’ve heard Christ accomplished our salvation on the cross with the words “it is finished,” we live in a world where it is… but it isn’t.
This is why the church observes Advent. For much of my life I assumed Advent was the season of baby Jesus, in golden fleece diapers, decking the halls with comfort and joy, and I think there’s beauty in that to this day. But, now that I’m older, I’ve learned that, well, “it is, but it isn’t.” As one of my favorite authors puts it, real Advent is not for sissies. Advent begins in the dark, and it is the season that most accurately represents what it means to be the church, called to sit in the dark and proclaim and reflect the light of Gospel even while the promise of the Gospel is…but isn’t.
In truth the arrival of Christ to which we look forward in Advent is not his coming at Christmas, but his promised second coming, which will fulfill what was revealed in his resurrection. Advent peers from within the deep shadows of life, toward the promised daylight, when Sin and Death, forgiven and destroyed in Christ’s first coming, will be ultimately and universally defeated in his second. Advent stands squarely in what isn’t, waiting and expecting and hoping for the Day when what isn’t becomes once and for all what is. This is the promise we’re waiting on, longing for in Advent. Not just a baby in a manger, but the end of all suffering, and the wiping away of all tears. And, we wait for it with anxious longing.
This year, in 2020, I think Advent came early. What has this pandemic full of disappointment, death, and doubt given to us if not a profound sense of longing for the promises of God. We have these promises, we have this news that God is for us, we have glimpses of it breaking through all over the place, but at the end of the day we exist in this Advent existence, in which the Good News is, and yet isn’t. And you know what that feels like? It’s painful.
That’s why Paul’s three analogies are actually not just to marriage, birth, and adoption. Paul’s analogies are to the pain of marriage, the pain of childbirth, and the pain of waiting on an adoption.
I have some experience of all three of those. But the one I happen to have recent first hand experience of is that last one. Twice now, I have had the experience of waiting to adopt a child. Two of our now three kids are adopted and with each one I had a similar experience. There is of course the waiting for the phone call once you’re on the waiting parents’ list, but I’m here to tell you, for me, that waiting was nothing compared to the time between when I got the phone call, and when my children were finally in my arms.
It happened the same with both of our adopted kids. When we got the call that a child had been born, for us, we were shocked and thrilled. In both cases, it wasn’t exactly what we expected, or how we expected, so we had all our initial reactions, and then it was time to spring into action.
Well, my wife, with both children, did just that. She went into full nesting mode. The house was clean, there were amazon packages arriving hourly, all the baby clothes and the car seat came out of storage, and plans were set in motion.
With me? Not so much. It is the wildest thing. With both children, in the time between when we got the news, and when we were ultimately together, my primary emotions were depression and rage. I was beside myself and incapacitated by the knowledge that I had a child, mine to have and to hold, but that child was not with me. I had wrath for the space that separated us, and I groaned at the pain it caused. But this year it dawned on me. This, I have decided, is Advent. This is the reality of life between when the good news comes, and when the good news comes together forever.
This is advent pain. This is Christian longing, the birthpangs of a reality promised, but not yet realized, a people reconciled but not yet reunited, a creation redeemed but not yet renewed.
By the end of my phone call with my friend I had spent most of it silent. That’s the advice they give you in pastor school, when someone is sharing their pain with you, you don’t fix it, you keep your mouth shut and you listen.
But, ultimately, as a friend and as a pastor, after the silent listening, something must be said. Paul’s question remains, what are we to say about these things? And, in a moment I can’t quite explain, I said to my friend, “I’m not your pastor, but if I were, I think my job as a pastor would be to hear all of this and acknowledge that it’s real. Your pain is real. And, having acknowledged that, to tell you a story of this thing that happened. This occurrence in which the Lord of the Universe, God, has spoken, and to tell you what I’ve been told happened with Jesus.
The story of the Bible, the story of Jesus, is the story in which God speaks, and shows us, that in a world of Sin and Death, God is more gracious than our sin, and more alive than all death, that God has power over Sin and Death. And what’s more, what the story of the Bible, the story of Jesus tells us is that this God who holds this much power. This God is for us. Not against us.
This pain, your pain, is Christ’s pain too. He bears it with you. Your longing is his longing, like a good spouse waits to be wed, a mother struggles to give birth, or a father endures the advent of an adoption. His spirit groans with you, in you. It is the Spirit’s own groaning.
But it is also His Spirit which calls out from deep to deep with a word of good news. A promise. A rumor that all will be well. If the God who is stronger than death is the God who is for us, if this is true… Since this is the Truth, it means none of these things, though very real, will ultimately prevail.
What are we to say about these things? About 2020? This is the Advent question… has been for a little under two thousand twenty years. But today, on Christ the King, we are fortunate. We get the answer ahead of time to hold onto all season long. What are we to say about these things? This:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through the One who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.