Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 21-28, 1990, p. 1092, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Israel’s sin was not unlike the sin of which our nation has been guilty: the sin of supporting the wealthy and ignoring the poor.
Both the Hebrew and the Christian testaments proclaim the coming of the Lord, though they present Advent and God in different images. Isaiah describes the coming Lord as a tender, loving warrior: "Behold, the Lord God comes with might, with an arm to rule . . . The Lord will feed the chosen flock like a shepherd; God’s arms will gather the lambs. God’s bosom will bear them up; the Lord will gently lead those who are with young." The author of 2 Peter describes this coming as cosmic havoc. "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up." In Mark, John the Baptist describes the coming Lord as "one who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie . . . the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
These ancient passages about God’s coming, which are read in churches during the Advent season, aggravated me during my undergraduate days. Trying to live a Christian life in a thoroughly secular culture, I asked hard questions about Advent. For instance, since the eschatological expectations recorded in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments have not come to pass after hundreds and hundreds of years, why should Christians today harbor the same expectations? Doesn’t this create endless anxiety? How on earth is it possible for us to live -- as the author of 2 Peter advises -- without spot or blemish or to be at peace in a world full of turmoil? And what do we do while we "wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13) ? Do we retreat from the world into a state of a monastic piety waiting for the Lord to come?
As I got older I responded to these questions out of a liberation faith informed by my own religious and social action experience and by the thought of various liberal, neo-orthodox and liberation theologians. I realized that one of the most important features of some of the Advent passages like those cited above is that they show us something about national sin, God’s punishment, repentance and hope.
One of Israel’s greatest sins was its tendency to degenerate into a wealthy nation that forgot to exercise justice and charity the poor and the oppressed. Therefore its people received double punishment for all their sins (Isa. 40:1-2) It experienced estrangement from those things (power, control, autonomy) that had made it a nation. Its power and autonomy were taken away by another conquering people. The people became exiles in a foreign land. They were no longer nations. Utter humility and humiliation became their condition before God and humanity. Through many years of anguish and toil they waited to be restored to their former glory and homeland.
Israel’s sin was not unlike the sin of which our nation has been guilty: the sin of supporting the wealthy and ignoring the poor. As the U.S. experiences financial crises, the working poor -- those who live from paycheck to paycheck -- experience unemployment. Some become homeless. These who may have few funds put aside gradually become penniless as rising prices and taxes absorb meager savings. As the banks foreclose on farmers’ loans, farmers lose their farms to wealthy agribusiness conglomerates. Meanwhile, the wealthy prosper even more through the policy of deregulating prices and corporate growth. The wages of this national sin are beginning to show up as the colossal national debt, the huge financial deficits of savings and loans associations, high unemployment and escalating numbers of homeless and hungry citizens.
However, the Advent texts give believers hope. Humans may repent of their sins and be forgiven by God who provides the reward of salvation. Isaiah says, "Behold, God comes bearing the reward, preceded by the recompense" that is human payment for the debt of sin. This is a gracious God who tells the prophet Isaiah to "Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to the city that its warfare is ended, that its iniquity is pardoned."
Though God’s way of reckoning time is not our way, though "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day," God does not want to punish us for long periods (2 Pet. 3:8) According to 2 Peter, God is tolerant toward us and wishes "that all should reach repentance." The purpose of contrition is so that humans may be in a state of readiness to receive the salvation brought to humankind by God’s Advent. This state of readiness is described as "holiness and godliness," being "zealous to be found by God without spot or blemish, and at peace," and growing "in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Christians, believing in a merciful and liberating God, know that the heart of the Advent message is the One of whom John the Baptist spoke: the "one who is coming [and came] to baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8) This One became human to be made poor so that humankind could see both its sin and its redemption. Thus today, because of this thoroughly poor, ethical and divine One, the sense of Advent becomes meaningful in a nation where sin seems to have no boundaries.