The problem is that this has not been one of the most 'Christmasy' Christmases for me. The day itself came almost as a surprise, and the church services did not particularly speak to me (German language barriers aside). But that fact in itself throws in sharper relief what I really have learnt over this past year about the true nature of 'Advent faith'.
What have I learnt over the past year? What follows is a summary of truths I've come to know in more than the abstract, 'theological' way that characterizes so much academic thinking. Feel free to contradict or query anything that I say.
- God is sovereign. It's his world, his plan and his will. He stoops down into our world and works within our categories and traditions, but he isn't bound by these categories and traditions. When he wishes, he hides himself and leaves us dangling (biblical echo: 1 Samuel 4-7).
- God places a high premium on human responsibility. So high it's scary. Part of that responsibility is taking care of the purity of your own heart. The connection between 'inside' and 'outside' is more important than piety and religious posturing. He wants you, he wants genuine, sincere, full-hearted workers and warriors in his kingdom and he's willing to put you through hell to make you realize where your priorities lie (biblical echo: King David's career, the 'deuteronomic' version).
- God, despite seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is a solid rock and eternal foundation, a fortress to those who seek shelter from the storm. But this God is not an abstract principle to be nodded at or an indulgent father to manipulate. He's a man with a plan, and this plan is of eternal significance. This plan is called the Gospel, and those who would find shelter in this safehaven must first be gripped, propelled and infused with this vision. Adoption into God's family means playing according to his agenda, and this agenda determines the nature of the relationship (biblical echo: the Book of Job).
- God's agenda is good, very good. This can seem hard to grasp when the battle is grim (and all too easy to forget) but the end is of a joy that is so substantial that all previous pain evaporates in the presence of tasting what life was meant to be from the very start. The greatest meaning and significance one can receive is participating in this movement, struggle, from falleness to restoration. Hope consists in 'tasting' this reality and realising there is more to come. Motivation for mission consists in wanting others to see this reality and be redeemed by it.
- One practical lesson I've learned is connected to my first point: you can't manufacture spirituality by doing your Bible Study, liturgy, quiet time, meditation or joining a religious organisation. These activities only become truly spiritual when they become places for meeting the God of your salvation, the God of the Gospel. The Gospel is the pre-condition for genuine spirituality, which can only be a response and participation, and not the result. Our work flows out of our vision, and not vice versa.So what does all this have to do with Advent faith?
Advent is that funny time of year when we are doing two things at once: looking back and looking forward, rejoicing and fasting, ending something and starting something new. As someone caught by the vision of God's good news and drawn into its outworking in history I'm stuck in this intermediate period: the God of goodness has revealed his plan for a redeemed creation. I've been born anew and allowed to taste what life should be like. Yet this reality still remains a 'should' and there's work to be done. I hesitantly look into a future of which the only certainty is the victory of God and I'm humbled that he knows me by name.