First Sunday in Advent: A Reflection

This is a reflection I was asked to write for our local church on this first Sunday of Advent.


Did you know that historically, within Church tradition, Advent is not primarily about the birth of Jesus at Christmas? Rather, for centuries it has been practiced more as a time of waiting in darkness for Jesus’ second coming, the final ‘day of the Lord’. In other words, if Jesus comes first as a saviour, Advent looks forward to his return as judge.

Mmural by Adam Kossowski of the heavenly new Jerusalem descending to earth (Rev. 21

Now, you might be saying ‘Hang on, judgment doesn’t sound like something to look forward to. I thought Advent was a time of joy and anticipation.’ 

Well, Advent is a time of joy and anticipation. But it begins, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, by gazing ‘into the heart of darkness’ – looking at our world as it truly is. This is why an authentically Christian Advent is a million miles away from the popular sentimentalism of modern Christmas with its soft-focus images of baby Jesus and his young mother, surrounded by cute animals.

Sentimentalism pretends all is right with the world. Advent tells the truth.

As we’re well aware, darkness is all around us. Destructive forces far bigger than us, do their worst. This year will be forever marked by the Coronavirus pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and cost millions more their livelihoods. Multiple wars continue to rage around the world, proponents often armed by Western nations like the USA, the UK, Germany and others. In Yemen over 24 million people are in dire need of aid, 3.6 million have fled their home and c. 200,000 killed. In Syria over 13 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, 6.7 million have been displaced and over 350,000 killed. These are just two conflicts of hundreds of smaller ones around the world. As 2020 comes to a close, globally there are 80 million people forcibly displaced people as a result of persecution, violence, human rights violations and war. Such people are extremely vulnerable to further injustices, Covid-19 and other diseases. Environmentally, wildlife globally has declined by over two-thirds since 1970. This catastrophic loss continues downward with implications for all life on earth. Global warming is already here – unprecedented fires in Australia, the Amazon and California show that the earth is literally burning.

And then there is the darkness in our own neighbourhoods and lives. Many of us will grieve the loss of family and friends this Christmas. Death is still an enemy. As we look back over 2020, we know that we have often chosen to go with darkness rather than light.

But Advent is not only about naming the darkness – that would indeed be hopeless. It looks forward to the good news of God’s judgment.

If you’re wondering how judgment can be good news, perhaps it’s because when we hear the word ‘judgment’ we tend to think of words like ‘condemnation’ and ‘judgmental’.

But there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Jesus’ future arrival as judge is best understood as ‘putting all things right’. It will be when all the powers of sin, evil and injustice that so disfigure God’s beloved world will be vanquished once and for all. Light will drive out the darkness. Creation itself will be remade. Death will be undone. Resurrection life will burst forth. Love will rule. God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28)

And so, this Advent, as we wait in the darkness, let’s pray in hope with the Apostle Paul: ‘Marana tha. Come O Lord!’ (1 Cor. 16:22).

Presbyterians and the Troubles

Next Thursday 03 December is an online conference ‘Considering Grace: Unpacking the Impact’ being run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland – and Rev Tony Davidson (First Armagh) in particular.

It revolves around a recent book written by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis called Considering Grace, Presbyterians and the Troubles (Merrion Press, 2019).

(I have a copy on my desk to review for a history journal)

There are so many untold stories about a dark 30 years of Irish history. So much grief and suffering confined to a small population – virtually no-one was untouched. This book brings some of them to light. They are stories that need to be told.

This is a clip from the PCI website. The conference was posponed from earlier in the year due to the Coronavirus.

The book includes

… over 100 stories from ministers, victims, members of the security forces, those affected by loyalist paramilitarism, emergency responders and health care workers, quiet peacemakers, politicians, those who left Presbyterianism and critical friends.

… We hope that the conference will help us to focus within the church not only on how we can promote reconciliation, while listening carefully to those who were most hurt through the Troubles, but also how we might train students, who will be ministering in congregations, which still bear the marks of pain and loss from that time.

… As we resume the conversation, we do so in the context of the forthcoming commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the state of Northern Ireland in 2021; changes brought about by Brexit on 1 January 2021; and unresolved issues around legacy. The past retains the power to poison present relationships. 

Love in Paul (4): Continuity and Discontinuity with the OT. Election Reworked.

In the previous post in this series we traced how Paul probably chose agapē as a relatively ‘unknown’ word that he could fill with meaning – a specific kind of meaning, shaped by the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah in whom the extraordinary love of God has been revealed.

But how ‘new’ is the apostle’s theology of love? It does not spring from ‘nowhere’. Paul is a Jew, schooled in the Scriptures.

Within the OT, there are three major strands of love that run through the story of Israel.

1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people

This is the first and greatest theme. Everything else depends on, and flows from, God’s initiatory, patient and immeasurable love.

2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.

3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another

When we come to Paul, these same three strands are all present (continuity). But they are reshaped in light of Jesus (discontinuity).

Just how much discontinuity there is between Paul and the OT takes us right into Old and New Perspectives on Paul, and more recent apocalyptic Paul debates. All we need to say here is that Paul’s understanding of love is comprehensively ‘reworked’ in light of the radical impact of Jesus. The result is still a recognisably Jewish theology of love, but one that is now Christologically shaped.

Strand 1) ELECTION

We can see this ‘reworking’ of love in Paul’s new understanding of election. It now includes all in Christ – both Jews and Gentiles. That’s quite a reworking right there.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 believers are chosen by God for salvation, are loved by the Lord (Jesus) and sanctified through the Spirit (a very Trinitarian verse)

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

In Romans the ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ are also loved (Rom. 1:7; 8:28).

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Paul frequently uses the adjective agapētos in an elective sense of being ‘chosen’. In Romans 11:28-29 it is the Gentiles who are elected and loved

28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.

In Ephesians 1:4-5 believers are chosen and predestined to adoption in love through Christ  

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will

So often discussion about election get caught up in the perceived ‘unfairness’ of God choosing some and not others. But for Paul the focus is very much on election as an act of love – that reaches its fulfilment in the grace of God in Christ.

In the next post we’ll consider how Paul’s understanding of election is profoundly reimagined in light of the love of God demonstrated at the cross.

Living Beyond Lockdown – and the environmental catastrophe

Here in the Republic of Ireland we are some weeks in to a ‘Level 5’ lockdown. Stay within 5km of your home. Work from home. Stay at home unless for essential reasons. Don’t visit anyone, even in their garden. Restaurants, most retail – all closed. You get the picture. Much of Europe seems to be going the same way.

Just to be clear – this is not a post complaining about the restrictions or debating whether they are overkill or not. And I’m also aware that it has in-built Western and probably middle-class assumptions about what ‘normal’ life is like – assumptions of reasonable physical and mental health, freedom, education, time and resources access to the internet etc

Given that most people’s worlds have drastically worlds contracted to a small physical space and with a small circle of family (or no-one if you live on your own), what are some things we can do to ‘expand’ those worlds?

I mean by ‘expand’ that we are relational and imaginative beings. So many of the joys of life are found in learning new things, deepening relationships, travelling to different places, experiencing a world outside our current horizon. That’s why I feel especially for late teens / 20s – this is normally a time in their lives when the world is opening up, yet lockdown lives up to its name in closing down life’s colour. Everything becomes a shade of grey.

So, if you are locked down, what are some things you have been doing to bring a bit of colour back? Is there something new that you have discovered that brings some unexpected joy?

Here’s one I’ve found – travelling to Africa. And Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa in particular. There are a few other ‘Africams’ on this site and you can watch live as well as scroll back through the day to see what’s happened.

‘Big Tusker’ Elephant at Tembe

I’ve never been to Africa but I feel like I have now. You can get lost in another world, a natural world bursting with unpredictable life – and the noise of birds by day and cicadas at night.

The elephants are magnificent and I’m only beginning to learn about their behaviour. Tembe has over 220 which includes some of the biggest tuskers in South Africa.

I hadn’t thought about what Giraffes have to do to get a drink. Warthogs are a favourite – they are tough as nails and have a face only a mother could love. Then there are the antelope: Impala are muscle on legs, ready to sprint. Kudu, Nyala, Waterbuck, Wildebeest and Suni regularly appear as do Zebra. We watched a huge herd of Cape Buffalo pass through the other day – such strength and yet social organisation. You might see Rhino by accident if they happen to wander into view. They are so endangered from poaching that the cams stay off them and comments are not allowed to mention them.

The cats are fantastic to see in the wild of course: lions and, more rarely, the leopard – the most special of all in my opinion. Cheetahs can be seen but I haven’t yet.

From Flickr – Leopard at Tembe

Also seen on the cams are are civets, genets, hippos, crocodiles, baboons, a rare Jackel the other day, African wild dogs, hyenas … As well as Ibis, Herons, vultures, and occasionally eagles – an African sea eagle and a tawney eagle so far. And so many other exotic birds that I don’t know anything about … apparently there are over 340 species of birds in the Tembe area.

At Tembe there are hundreds of African Weaver Birds – you can see the bright yellow males with black faces and the nests they have build hanging upside down from the branches.

Watching this, especially watching live, brings you into the sights and sounds of a different world – a fantastically diverse natural world.

Apart from being fascinating and, at times exciting, the thing you start to notice is how unrushed the animals are in all their movements, a rhythm of life that has its own pace.

Yes an antelope getting chased by a lion is not hanging about. Yes ‘behind the scenes’ of the webcam there is plenty of disease, death and carnivorous activity. But the overwhelming sense is of just ‘being’.

So, for me, it’s been a place to go during lockdown: there is peace, beauty and calm there. It refreshes the mind and soul – and maybe puts into perspective our lack of calm; our frenetic rushing about; our obsession with ourselves and myopic ugliness of so much of our politics (say no more).

The environmental catastrophe

But beyond the personal, its also a reminder of how fragile that world is. Most of the cams are in game reserves where the animals are protected (to some degree) from hunting, poaching and ever-encroaching human activity. The richness of life in Tembe and the other cams gives an illusory picture of health.

On a bigger scale, pretty well all of the Africams are focused on water. Without water life dies. And several of the water sources are man-made. Global warming and associated drought, along with human destructive behaviour, threatens vast numbers of species globally.

The population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have seen an average drop of 68% since 1970. Read that again – 2/3 of wildlife have disappeared in the last 50 years – and the trend is continuing downward.

World Wildlife Fund

This is catastrophic for our all life on our planet – including human. And the threat is growing. The reason we are in Lockdown is a direct result of human disruption of nature. Much more serious Pandemics could follow.

From the latest WEF Global Risk Report.

For the first time, its 2020 report found that the top five risks facing the world in the coming year were all linked to the environment. They included biodiversity loss, climate change and extreme weather events.

One thing is crystal clear – business cannot go on as normal. The Pandemic has been a ‘warning shot’ that all our assumptions about normal can be overturned in a couple of weeks. We need a radically new vision of ‘normal’ if the world’s ecosystem is to even begin to recover. We cannot go on under the illusion that endless growth and prosperity is either possible or desirable. It is obviously neither.

We need new models of food production and new models of sustainable consumption if things are to change.

As Greta Thunberg says, it hypocrtical for political leaders to make the right noises about vague promises to be carbon free in 2050 but fail to take costly meaningful action that is going actually to change our assumptions of what normal life looks like in the immediate future.

As I was finishing this blog post I got an an email from the Irish-based Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice linking to their latest publication in which is this article. It concludes

Simply restating the nightmare that will come upon us if we do not act will not be enough. No one wants to live in a horror movie. The story we are telling need not be a tragedy. There is time to act. There are grounds for hope. Recognising that there is no way to separate our care for the environment from our care for our neighbours is the first step out of the chaos of a world hurtling into dystopia. “Genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” We do not yet know how all the pieces will fit together that will tackle this monumental challenge. We know grassroots democratic discourse is central. We know our entire political imagination must undergo an ever-deeper ecological conversion. We know that establishing this respect for others and for the earth as our fundamental value – not efficiency, not ideological purity, not even success – is the place to start.

‘Do We Really Feel Fine? Towards an Irish Green New Deal’

So – here’s another challenge for Lockdown: let’s reflect on why we are here in the first place. Let’s get educated about the unfolding catastrophe in the natural world in which we live, and let’s consider how we can act to make a difference where we are.

Love in Paul (3) Why the emergence of agapē?

So why is agapē so dominant in Paul – and the other writers of the NT?

To be honest, no-one can know for sure (since no-one in the NT writes a footnote explaining their use of language). But we can make an educated guess.

First we need to understand the different histories of agapē (love) and agapaō (to love).

The verb agapaō was around for a long time before the NT was written. It appears in classical Greek literature and has a wide range of meaning actually not that different to how the verb love is used in modern English. For example, to have an extremely high regard for someone or something. Only rarely does it refer to sexual love. And now and then it might refer to the love of a god for an individual.

In the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek translation of the Old Testament c. 3rd century BC) agapaō takes centre stage as the word of choice to translate a variety of Hebrew words for love. It occurs over 250 times or so, most frequently as a translation of āhab, the most common Hebrew word for love. In the LXX, other Greek verbs for love, like phileō, appear much less often and usually translating friendship love.

When it comes to agapē it’s quite a different story. The word only appears much later in history, the first occurrences being in the Septuagint. And it is a truly ‘biblical’ word in that it appears only once outside the Bible. In the LXX it is still relatively rare. It appears only about 18 times, most of which occurrences are in the Song of Songs referring to sexual love.

So there is a major shift by the time we get to the NT. There agapē becomes Paul’s (and the other authors of the NT) favourite world word for love. It also develops a much richer and deeper meaning, as we’ll explore in some more posts to come. Save to say here that three big love themes run through Paul’s theology

  1. God’s elective and saving love
  2. Human response to God’s love
  3. Love within the covenant community

So why this development in the use, and understanding of, agapē in Paul? My take is that it’s tied to the apokalypsis (revelation) of Jesus Christ. The Christ-event dramatically changes Paul’s understanding of God to such an extent that it leads to a comprehensive reimagining of what divine love looks like (the cross) and what a response to it entails (sacrificial love).

This revolution in the understanding of love calls for a ‘new’ word.  Paul would have been aware of agapē from the LXX, and its close connection to agapaō. So does he choose agapē as a word which can then be filled with new meaning in light of the love of God poured out in the incarnation, mission, death and resurrection of the Son of God?

We’ll explore the content of that new meaning in a few other posts.

The insignificance of the US election

Just out of a class this evening on ‘gospel. We played this Bible Project video – an outstanding explanation of the good news in terms of the Bible story.

Towards the end they say this

While it might look like the rulers of our world are in charge and can do whatever they want the good news is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the true Lord of the world, the real king of all creation

And that is very good news indeed.

This is not to say what happens in America tonight is unimportant. It is to say that Christian hope does not at all depend on who sits in the Oval Office.

By co-incidence I’ve also been reading a book about early Christianity and the Roman empire. It sits in the vein of ’empire studies’ – a branch of NT studies that sees NT writers, particularly Paul, as deliberately confronting the power of Caesar / Rome. So Romans is re-read in a dramatically different way as a polemic against Rome and a call for believers there to subvert Rome in all they do.

I remain unconvinced by this thesis. It reads too much into the text and sees ‘Rome’ behind every bush in Paul’s thinking.

I’m more convinced by NT scholar John Barclay’s take on empire studies. He says (paraphrasing here) that Paul has much bigger fish to fry. The real opponents in view are sin, death, evil powers in the cosmic conflict between God and all the forces that distort and destroy his good creation. God has won the victory in Christ.

The most counter-imperial thing Paul does is not even bother to name Caesar or the Roman empire. They are insignificant in the bigger story.

And so are Donald Trump and Joe Biden.