Review: Unto Us a Child Is Born

Unto Us a Child is Born, Tyler D. Mayfield. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that, as we read Isaiah during Advent, we need to read “with bifocals,” considering both the Advent liturgical significance of the texts and their meaning for our Jewish neighbors.

For unto us a child is born.” (Isaiah 9:6a)

This is a phrase from Isaiah 9: 2-7, one of the readings on the fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) in liturgical churches. Many non-liturgical churches will read this as well during one of the services leading up to Christmas. And surrounding all of this is the magnificent rendering of this passage by George Frideric Handel in Messiah. In our churches, we readily connect this passage with the babe born in Bethlehem, this great one come from God, even called “Mighty God.” We marvel at the divine condescension that means our salvation.

Little do we often consider that we are neither the first nor only ones to read passages like these that we understand as “Messianic.” These passages were read by Jews in Isaiah’s time, and down to our own day. Yet we often remain oblivious to what these passages meant and mean to our Jewish neighbors, sometimes in painful and insensitive ways.

Tyler D. Mayfield recommends that we read with bi-focals, using our near vision to read the Isaiah passages of Advent to consider their significance in the Christian Advent context. He also suggests that we simultaneously read with our distance vision, understanding what these texts mean for our Jewish neighbors who share them.

He spends the first part of the book discussing what it means to read with bi-focals. An important contention he makes is that the prophecy-fulfillment paradigm we often use fails to recognize the significance of the text in its original context, and to Jewish readers. He proposes instead a model of texts in conversation, as is often the case in liturgical churches where Old and New Testament texts are paired and we listen to the conversation between them for common and relevant themes. He also observes the importance of historical development of “messiah” from “anointed” to an eschatological figure, the deleterious effects of supersessionism (the idea that the church has superseded, or replaced Judaism in God’s economy), and how this may even shade into anti-Judaism.

The second and third parts of the book consider eight passages from Isaiah that are a part of the Advent liturgical readings, four “Messianic” texts (Isaiah 7:10-16; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; and 61:1-4, 8-11) and four “eschatological” texts (Isaiah 2:1-5; 35:1-10; 40:1-11; 64:1-9). For each passage, Mayfield considers originating contexts, later Jewish and early Christian contexts or readings, contemporary Jewish and Christian readings, and finally a “bifocal look,” a kind of summary.

We might take the example of Isaiah 9:2-7, noted earlier. He begins with the context of the passage in the 8th century BCE, at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite war. The language is that of the birth of a king whose enumerated qualities would have been vital for this time. Who is this child-king? He is not named but the leading candidate may be Hezekiah. In the early Christian context, “for unto us…” is not quoted but the first verses of this passage are in Matthew 4:12-16, noting the light that has come to the northern tribes in the region of Galilee. Early Christian commentators Justin and Jerome were the first to apply “for unto us…” to Jesus. He then considers the influence of Messiah, including some translational issues, and current contexts, focusing on the light to the Gentiles in this passage for Christians, the shared theme of light with Jews in Hanukkah, and a shared hope for faithful government. He concludes with this “bifocal look”

“With our near vision, we see a wonderful child has been born to us. With our near vision, we hum along with Handel as we celebrate: ‘Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

With our far vision, we see our neighbors celebrating the theme of light during Hanukkah. With our far vision, we see the originating context’s focus on a new king’s accession to the throne.”

This book raises an important issue of how we read not only these scriptures but other Old Testament texts. Do we read these in a way that recognize and honor our Jewish neighbors, are oblivious to them or even exclusive of them, or at worst hostile? Mayfield models an approach holding in tension readings acknowledging the conversation between these texts and New Testament texts and respect for the context of Jewish readings of these same texts. In this era of rising anti-Semitism in many countries, it is vital that Christians in no way contribute to this by our reading of scripture, and in fact affirm our common heritage with and debt to our Jewish neighbors.

I wonder, at the same time, about the repudiation of the idea of fulfillment, an idea found in the New Testament scriptures, for “conversation.” Fulfillment has historically been an important part of both a Christian hermeneutic of reading the two testaments, and of Christian apologetics. Likewise, prophecy has been understood not only as “forth-telling” but as including elements of “fore-telling.” Mayfield’s approach mutes but does not negate the differences between Jewish and Christian readings of these texts. Good bi-focals, ground to the correct prescription, bring both near and distant objects into sharp focus. I am concerned that Mayfield’s prescription for near vision softens or blurs our Christian reading of these texts while bringing our far vision into focus. While the latter is a commendable aim, for which the author offers a good and important model, I would like clarity of vision in both readings, even if it means wrestling in charity with the tensions that have always existed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Advent for Everyone: Matthew

Advent for Everyone

Advent for Everyone: Matthew, N. T. Wright. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: An Advent devotional with four weeks of daily readings and commentary by a noted New Testament scholar and pastor.

N. T. Wright has published a whole series of “…for Everyone” books including ones for each of the three years in the lectionary cycle. This focuses around the Advent readings for Year A in the Gospel of Matthew. The devotional includes daily readings for the four weeks of Advent, with translations of Matthew by the author, brief commentary, and a question or two for reflection.

I found this a rich set of devotional readings. At the core of each devotional is real commentary. That is, Wright concisely sets forward the meaning and relevance of the day’s text, rather than simply sharing an “inspiring thought that may or may not have any connection to the reading.

In this review, I will share one example, a brief summary from one of each week’s readings, that may give you a flavor for the whole:

Week 1: A Time to Watch: 

First Sunday of Advent: The unexpected visit: Matthew 24:36-44

Wright reminds us from a personal experience of what it means to have unexpected visitors. He then deals with this apocalyptic text from Matthew and its call for watchfulness for the Lord’s coming. He speaks of the dire prophecy, fulfilled at least initially, with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He observes that the one taken, one left refers to those taken by soldiers to their deaths and those left untouched. Interestingly, the church fled Jerusalem before its fall, recognizing what was coming. Wright urges us to similar watchfulness in our own “turbulent and dangerous times.” And so we are invited into the beginning of this season of watching for the Lord’s Advent.

Week 2: A Time to Repent:

Thursday: The Parable of the Clean and Unclean: Matthew 15:10-20

Beginning with one of my favorite stories of Pooh and the Heffalump, he talks about Pooh’s concern that the jar of honey set to lure the Heffalump was real honey all the way down. From this he moves to the issue of purity and the challenge of Jesus to religious leaders who are pure on the outside and corrupt inwardly. The invitation is one to search our own hearts. For what need we repent and ask the coming Lord to cleanse in our lives? Are we pure all the way down?

Week 3: A Time to Heal:

Wednesday: The Raising of the Little Girl: Matthew 9:18-26

Every culture has hygiene practices and for good reasons. These enable us to avoid disease. For the Jews, you avoided a woman having her period or any other bleeding, and you did not touch dead bodies. If so, you went through ritual cleansing. In this passage, Jesus both permits a bleeding woman to touch him and takes the hand of a dead girl. Instead of Jesus being rendered unclean, the woman is healed, the dead girl comes to life. Here is one more powerful than whatever may pollute our lives, in body or mind. What might he touch and heal in us?

Week 4: A Time to Love:

Monday: Loving Your Enemies: Matthew 5:38-48.

Wright observes that Israel is a chosen people, yet overrun with enemies. He shows how Jesus offers “a new sort of justice, a creative, healing restorative justice.” It means a refusal to answer violence with violence. It means to go beyond the judgment of a shirt to giving one’s cloak, shaming the adversary with one’s virtual nakedness. It means to go beyond the mile Romans could impress one to carry a load, going a second mile, gratis. Wright asks with regard to our own enemies, “How does his teaching on reflecting the generous God and defusing violence speak to you?”

Wright’s devotionals focus on the wonder of this Lord who has come and is coming, and how we might watch for and prepare for that coming. His incisive commentary and questions are designed not just to engender warm feelings of “comfort and joy” but rather to call us into the deeper work of watching, repenting, longing for healing, and embracing the generous love of God.

This review may come late for this season. I’d encourage you to buy this volume, and the companions for Year B (Advent for Everyone: A Journey with the Apostles) and Year C (Advent for Everyone: Luke). Then you will have them for the full lectionary cycle. Yesterday, we lit the fourth Advent candle in our church, looking forward to the lighting of the Christ candle, the one who is the light of the world. These readings helped intensify my joy in what his first coming means and my longing for his return. The Lord grant you the same!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Advent

Advent

Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus ChristFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: A collection of sermons and writings organized according to the lectionary calendar of pre-Advent and Advent Sundays and special days, focusing on preparation for return of Christ.

Advent is often thought of as the four Sundays before Christmas, and a time of anticipating the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is that, and Fleming Rutledge would propose, far more. Reading Advent, it became more for me as well. This book is a collection of sermons given over many years and various locations, as well as a shorter collection of writings. Aside from the writings the sermons are organized by the Episcopal pre-Advent and Advent calendar, spanning a seven week period.

Our typical mental picture of Advent is one of warm, family-centered times of Advent calendars and activities, and the lighting of Advent wreaths. Rutledge presents us with an older tradition, and one not for the faint of heart, She reminds us of Episcopal practice, in which the church is not decorated until Christmas, in contrast to a society that decorates for Christmas with lights, ornaments, trees, and more before Thanksgiving. All this is occurring during Advent which is a time of darkness rather than light.

Rutledge reminds us that Advent occurs in a season of darkness, and in a world that is sin-darkened. It is a season of waiting for the king, and not simply for his first coming, but his return. We wait, conscious of the evil in the world and each one of us. We wait, learning to long for judgment as a setting right of things . We understand that history is coming to a culmination–a cosmic war. We wait, remembering the ministry of John who prepared the Lord’s way. Rutledge does not shy from things like judgment and hell, and believes that in the facing of biblical teaching about these things, we understand more clearly the salvation of our God in the two comings of Christ, leading us to welcome his coming in our lives.

The sermons model how to weave the events of the day, from 9/11 to an ordination into the text of a message, and to adapt material to retreats, mid-week services as well as Sundays. Most of the sermons are five or six pages in length, ideal for reading over the course of pre-Advent and Advent as a series of meditations on Advent. The sermons are not theological treatises, but rather theological addresses, from the “I” of the preacher to the “you” of her hearers. They are rich both in the unpacking of the doctrines of the incarnation and return of Christ, and practical application of these truths for individuals and congregations.

Reading this left me with fresh wonder that our God would so seek us out in the person of his Son, and left me longing for his return. To live nearly two-thirds of a century is to see a good deal of evil, including that in myself. To see the atrocities people wreak upon each others, the contemptuousness of many in power for the lowly, the desecration of a beautiful world, all leave me longing for the day when things are set right Rutledge’s sermons do not offer an escape from the harsh realities of life. Rather, the sermons repeatedly reframe these in a larger story–one in which the God who has acted in the cradle and the cross, will act decisively both to wondrously save, and judge, wiping away every tear.

It is this we await in the darkness of Advent, mirroring the darkness of the world. Rutledge helps us see what a wonder the coming of the Dayspring truly is. Her forthright messages evidence one who has reached “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” that will prepare our hearts for Christ. There is yet time to sit down with this work before Christmas begins. I was not sorry and I do not think you will be.

Reading Reflections on this book in previous posts:

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge — One

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge–Two

 

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge–Two

AdventSpiritual warfare. The Day of Judgment. The Return of the King. Darkness before the coming of the Dayspring. These themes recur on pages 157-272 of Advent, in the second of my reflections on this collection of Pre-Advent and Advent sermons. These sermons cover the three Sundays before Advent, and the first of the Advent Sundays.

Spiritual warfare. Rutledge exposits, “save us in the time of trial, and deliver us from the evil one,” from the Lord’s prayer. These phrases would have made ready sense to believers from many ages. We want to be saved from trial. For many, they have been saved in the time of trial. We pray about adversity and hard times. Rutledge reminds us of the cosmic warfare and the personal power of evil opposing God and those who would claim allegiance to him.

The Day of Judgment. Rutledge invites us not to suppress the preaching of such a day, but to actually love the day of judgement. Why? For one, when we glimpse the terrible evils of the world, we do not want the perpetrators to continue with impunity, that a world without judgment would be worse than hell. But this is no invitation to smugness. “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” Judgment bids us to repent and to look with joy upon the one who alone can cover and forgive sin and save us through judgment.

The Return of the King. The Feast of Christ the King is the last Sunday before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to return. In one sermon in this section Rutledge asks two questions: Whom do we want to be ruler of our lives? Whom do we want to be ruler of this world of Sin and Death? If we are honest, we have to admit that the answer to the first question is often ourselves. The answer to the second is often, is the world really that bad? As we approach Advent, we ask, do we really want a King, and do we want one whose coming means the extinction of sin and death.

Darkness. One of Rutledge’s first sermons is titled “Advent Begins in the Dark.” Anglican churches have no decorations until Christmas. Only when the one who is the Dayspring comes, is it appropriate for light to shine out from the church. It is the shortest time of the year. It is the darkness of the absence of God, of awaiting God’s coming. It is the parable of the doorkeeper charged to stay awake watching for the master. Drawing on the title of another sermon, it is “The Advent Life for Nonheroic People.”

Every step we take in this world is a step toward either darkness or light. Every harsh word, every mean act, every vengeful thought is a part of the world of darkness. Every act of forgiveness, every small act of charity, every temptation resisted is a piece of the armor of light.

All of this increases my longing for the King, and my wonder that such a King came first to die, and returns to judge, and save, and reign. It all increases my sense of dependence on the King–for the power to resist to the end the Evil One, for conviction leading to repentance and grace, for the coming of the King who is the light shining out of the darkness.

Reading Reflections: Advent by Fleming Rutledge — One

Advent

During Lent this year, I read The Crucifixion by Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge. It was one of the richest books of theology I’ve read in the past ten years, and so I purchased a copy of AdventThat time has come and I’ve begun reading this book (not quite as long) as I await the celebration of Christ’s coming, and anticipate his return. I thought I’d share reflections as well as a review, partly to let you know as soon as possible about this book so you might be able to join me in reading during this season of Advent. Like The Crucifixion, there is such a rich feast of thought that a single review cannot do it justice!

This book is unlike The Crucifixion in consisting of a compilation of writings and sermons on Advent themes from throughout Rutledge’s ministry, given in or written for a number of different settings. The sermons have been grouped around Pre-Advent Themes, the four Sundays of Advent, concluding with a Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent. The writings and sermons are preceded by an introduction that frames the collection theologically.

This reflection covers the several sections of the book, up through page 158. Several things have been striking so far. One is the focus on the Advent as the season of the second coming. Most of us focus on the anticipation of the birth of the incarnate Lord, celebrating this first coming in all that it means for our redemption. Rutledge observes that the liturgical focus of the readings in all but the last Sunday is on the second coming of Jesus. This is what truly makes it a season of waiting. She observes:

Because the church in modern times has turned away from the proclamation of the second coming, an intentional effort must be made to reinstate it. Related to the second coming, which Jesus repeatedly says will come by God’s decision at an hour we do not expect, is the Advent emphasis on the agency of God, as contrasted with the “works” of human beings.

In another sermon she describes the tension of a passage in 2 Peter of “waiting and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord” and describes hastening as “action in waiting.” Yes, we act in the hope and anticipation of that day, but always from a posture of waiting, knowing that the Lord will return in his time on his terms.

Advent is not all sweetness and light for Rutledge. It is light into the darkness, the revealing of the line of good and evil that runs through each of us and the resistance against the Evil One, a reminder of the battleground we inhabit between the first and second Advents of Jesus.

In another sermon, Rutledge reminds us of King Hussein of Jordan, who shortly before his death, visited families of Israelis killed in an Arab terrorist bombing, simply sitting with the bereaved. Then she turns to the late Princess Diana visiting an Angolan hospital ward filled with disfigured and suffering patients coming alongside and caressing patients. Rutledge observes in each, “majesty stooped,” and that this is what we remember in Advent. The focus on the second Advent with Christ’s kingly return stands in contrast with the incarnate, helpless and vulnerable babe, who grew lived, and died for our redemption. In Christ, majesty stooped, and it truly is a wonder to behold as it was with King Hussein and Princess Diana.

This is but a taste of the rich material in the opening pages of this book. I would mention that my favorite bookseller, Hearts and Minds currently offers this and a number of other Advent books at a 20% discount. Wherever you buy or borrow this book, I hope you will have the chance to spend time in it, whether this Advent or in a future year.

 

Review: The Advent of the Lamb of God

the advent of the lamb of God

The Advent of the Lamb of God (Retelling the Story Series), Russ Ramsey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A retelling of the story of the coming of Jesus, who would be God’s ultimate lamb, tracing from the Fall through Israel’s history to Christ’s advent, God’s relentless yet loving pursuit of his people.

Christians are story-shaped people. For anyone who would suggest that the Bible is God’s rule book, I would propose rather that the Bible tells us the story of God’s pursuit of a lost humanity and how we might be found by Him and live within that story. The older I get the more I’m persuaded that we often don’t really know the story we live within, and are sometimes shaped by stories that really aren’t our story.

What I so love about this book, and the series of three of which it is a part, is that Russ Ramsey uses three great seasons of the church’s life: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and Pentecost to help us discover (or re-discover) our story. Through 25 brief reflections, he traces Israel’s longing for the Promised One, the Messiah, and then his coming in Jesus, Immanuel. Ramsey’s spare prose sketches out the main contours of the biblical narrative from the fall, through the coming of the Messiah, and briefly his baptism, and ministry, death, and resurrection, that fulfilled the longings of generations of Israel.

We’re reminded of the one who would come to crush the head of Eve’s deceiver, the one who would be sacrificed on Moriah instead of Isaac, the one who wrestled with Jacob, who was the new Moses, the faultless judge, the King promised to David. It is a narrative that stresses how Israel relentlessly tries to shake God’s grasp, and a God who refuses to let go of them because of his intention to bless them, and through them the nations. Ramsey writes:

Though they would wrestle with God, and though the Lord would hobble them, stripping them of their leverage, it would be because God was fighting for them even when they were fighting against him, even when they forgot the covenant the Lord himself swore to uphold. (p. 51)

He explores how God fulfilled his covenant promise through a silenced priest, an aged wife, a  young girl, and a bewildered but obedient husband, all of them living under the thumb of the Roman empire, and their power hungry surrogate, Herod the Great. We are reminded of the real agonies the young maiden endured among the stabled animals, the wondrous birth, the angels with the shepherds, the flight to Egypt with the Magi’s gifts, and the joyful declaration and sober warnings in the words of aged Simeon of a sword that would pierce Mary’s heart.

This is not a tightly focused treatment of the birth narratives alone but connects them to what has gone before in Israel’s history. These are not disparate narratives but one narrative, in which the birth is a kind of culmination of what has gone before. Yet Ramsey accomplishes this by focusing on the main contours of the story, and by prose that is both imaginative and yet disciplined.

You may wonder about reviewing an Advent book in July. Yet Christian educators and worship leaders are anticipating the Advent season even now. This might be a great Advent devotional to be used, perhaps as an adjunct to adult education or a preaching series. It is a wonderful resource for young believers, as well as those of longer years who, immersed in theological argument, how-to-ism, or approaches that set the Bible at war with itself, might discover again for the first time this wondrous story. Ramsey’s book is no substitute for the Bible, or “Cliff’s Notes” for scripture, but rather an invitation to discover our story and immerse ourselves in it, allowing it to shape our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Some of My Favorite Advent and Christmas Carols

This is a season of singing! Of course, the interesting question is, what is there to sing about but I will leave that to another blog. I thought I might share some of the Christmas music I love the most. This is in no particular order except what comes to mind.

1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This is properly an Advent song, that longs for the coming of “God with us” and the very music speaks of both longing and the great joy that Emmanuel has come.

2. What Child is This? The tune of “Greensleeves” is part of the wonder of this song, but only part. The other part is the words, the first part of which ask a question of wonder about this child and the second declare the greatness clothed in the garb of the babe.

3. Joy to the World! This Isaac Watts carol with music by Lowell Mason (and part from G. F. Handel) captures in music the tremendous thing that has occurred in the coming of the Christ. Here is verse 4:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

4. I must include Silent Night not only for the wonderful story of this carol’s composition but also the memories of singing this for most of my life at candlelight services.

5. Of the Father’s Love Begotten is a chant whose words date back to the 4th century and explore the wonder of the incarnation. More recently Caldwell & Ivory wove this song into their Hope for Resolution which Capriccio has had the chance to sing at our Christmas concert a couple years ago and several times since.

And some lesser know carols:

6. Thou Who Wast Rich was written by Frank Houghton to a French Carol melody. Here is the first verse:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

There are “covers” of this song on YouTube by contemporary artists, not all which acknowledge the authorship and none of which are particularly satisfying. You can find the lyrics to the song and a midi file here.

7. Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming is a German carol (my ethnic heritage!) and likens the infant Christ to an ever blooming Rose drawing from the prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 that ‘a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse.”

8. Who Comes this Night is a contemporary carol written a few years ago by David Grusin, the jazz musician and performed by James Taylor on his Christmas album.  You can listen to a choral version of this here.

9. A few years ago Capriccio sang The Darkest Midnight in December written by Stephen Main.  Here is a recording I listened to many times as I practiced this music.

10. And just yesterday we sang another piece I’ve come to love, What Sweeter Music by John Leavitt. Here is a link from Stanton Music’s website (a great source of sheet music located right here in Columbus!).

What are some of the songs you most love to hear and sing at this time of the year?

The Strange Act of Forgiveness

The passing of Nelson Mandela and memorials remembering his life have caused me to reflect upon the strange act of forgiveness. Why strange? Mandela is a case in point–oppressed and imprisoned because he advocated a better life for black Africans–the last thing you might expect such a one to do upon gaining power would be to create a process of forgiveness and reconciliation for a nation torn apart by apartheid. What would have been expected, and was feared, would be a paroxysm of violence avenging the violence of apartheid.  Miraculously, South Africa escaped the brutal civil wars that have torn apart so many of our countries. All because of the strange act of forgiveness.

What makes forgiveness so hard is that it is necessary when we have been truly, and sometimes deeply, hurt by another. Oftentimes, the only compensating satisfaction is to try the offender in our minds, to exact judgment upon them at least mentally, and to dream of that judgment being applied upon them. Sometimes, the hurt begins to so distort us that we dream of the hurt we would do if we have the opportunity, or even act out those dream in acts of verbal or physical violence. As the old saying goes, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” To live in this place is to become cold, become hard, become cruel–and yet we often feel ourselves incapable of escaping going down this path.

Forgiveness, it seems, begins with deciding to forgo this judgment and revenge “loop” we keep replaying in our minds. That’s what Mandela did in leading South Africa. It didn’t mean pretending that all the evils of apartheid never existed. It meant saying, “this happened and we will not give you what you deserve.” It meant, through creating truth and reconciliation commissions that wrongs could be acknowledged, forgiveness extended, and the fabric of relationships healed. It did mean deciding to turn away from the path of revenge, of wreaking some form of psychic or physical punishment on the other. It didn’t mean everything was suddenly wonderful. It did mean the possibility of a new beginning.

So often I hear protests against God’s allowance of so much evil in the world. Yet I wonder if it could be the case that God could remove evil without removing us. Paul Little, a former leader in the organization I work with once remarked, “if God were to wipe out all the evil in the world at midnight tonight, who of us would be around at 12:01?” And truthfully, in my most honest moments, I recognize that I am capable of, and at times have dreamed and perhaps done evil, that at very least is monstrous in the eyes of God, even if I keep up good appearances.

The wonder for me, that we celebrate in the season of Advent and Christmas is the coming of One through whom God extended forgiveness to the world. Given what we have done to the beautiful world God made and to our fellow human beings as well as other creatures, that’s not what we deserve. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Forgiveness is never deserved. It is a costly gift. It is a strange act indeed. What a gift to the world it is when people like Mandela choose to act so strangely!