“Advent is definitely not for sissies,” declares Fleming Rutledge, Episcopal priest and theologian, in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Advent is the short but potent liturgical season that dramatizes the “end times”: the second coming, the divine judgment, the undoing and remaking of heaven and earth. Its character is both eschatological and apocalyptic. But here is the kicker, we (humanity) have been living in the end times since the death and resurrection of Jesus, the whole span of centuries between his first coming and his promised return, as Rutledge’s title indicates.
I have been deeply rattled over the past few years by the state of our world and especially the state of American society. The clouds overhead are menacing, the wind howling, the rain pelting, but I fear the worst of the roiling storm is yet to come. And I am not one to be alarmist. We can all tick off the immediate list of woes: the pandemic, the racial strife, the political polarization, the opioid crisis, the rising violence, the fractured church, the eroding trust and growing despair.
Is our current moment any more dire than others? At the turn of the century, writer Annie Dillard addressed such a perception:
Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is?—our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations; our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other.
Perhaps she echoes Jesus who, in speaking of the “sign of his coming and the end of the age,” warned about false messiahs, “wars and rumors of wars…famines and earthquakes in various places,” all of which would be just “the beginning of birth pangs.” (Matt. 24:3-8) These things are not new.
But then there’s climate change, which in its human causation is new.
Like a voice crying in (and for) the wilderness, environmentalist Bill McKibben warns: “Put simply, between ecological destruction and technological hubris, the human experiment is now in question.”
Maggie Nelson, in her penetrating essay on climate change in On Freedom, nods to Dillard but underscores the darkening prospects:
So, while no one wants to be one of Dillard’s dupes, drunk on an ahistorical, spiritually unwise conviction of our era’s special significance, it seems just as idiotic (not to mention genocidal, geocidal) to ignore the more extraordinary facts of our moment, which, when allowed in, elicit awe (as well as fear, grief, anger, and other hard-to-bear feelings).
In Advent, we open our eyes and peer right into the darkness. We let the Biblical prophets and their contemporary counterparts call out the horrific injustices, the dehumanizing idolatries, the arrogant hierarchies, and the destructive divisions. We even look within our own sin-shadowed hearts.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment: I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 3:5)
We see the Evil in our world, the Enemy at work, the Darkness spreading (even as the daylight hours in North America during Advent diminish while the hours of darkness increase). We also carry our own brokenness, loss, and pain.
And so we lament. We lament with tears of dismay and compassionate empathy and penitent humility.
“How long, O Lord,” we cry out.
“Have mercy, O Lord,” we plead.
But we do not lament as those who have no hope. Advent invites our honest dismay in this time between God’s first coming in unassuming humanness and his final coming in all-consuming glory, the “Time Between” (Rutledge). In the Incarnation, God in Christ achieved our salvation and inaugurated our transformation; in the Consummation, God in Christ will judge Evil and make all things new, not only humans made in his image, but all creation made by his Word. The power of the first advent underwrites the promise of the second, Resurrection guarantees Redemption.
“The hope that we meet coming towards us in Advent, then, is the hope that lies beyond any possible good news that could arise out of the human situation. It must come to us out of the future of God or not at all.” (Rutledge)
God calls us to act for good in the world—love neighbor, do justice, show mercy, walk humbly, bear witness—to participate with him in his ongoing redemptive work. (So one Advent prayer is that we might see what God is doing, how he is coming into our own lives and contexts now.) But God also tells us to wait and to watch, to put our ultimate hope not in human effort or government policy or social movements but in his promises and his power in the end.
I don’t know the “how long” of racial injustice or the “how soon” of climate catastrophe, but I do know that our Redeemer lives and promises a New Heaven and Earth and chooses to make his home with us even now. Even with our tears, we persist in faith, we choose to love, and we hold on to hope.
At the last, all these tears of lament, he will wipe from our cheeks. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Bobby Gross, Vice President for InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry is sharing this series of Advent reflections as well as one for Epiphany with the Emerging Scholars Network. These will post each Friday preceding the corresponding Sunday of Advent. We hope these enrich your preparation both to remember the first coming of Jesus and his future return.
 2018, p. 21-22
 From November 29 to Christmas Eve this year
 For the Time Being, 1999, p. 30
 Falter, 2019, p. 1
 2021, p. 174
 P. 25
 For an important resource for personal action in response to climate change from a Christian academic who doesn’t “ignore the extraordinary facts of our moment,” see Katherine Hayhoe’s Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (2021)
About the author:
Bobby Gross has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Vice President for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Gainesville (FL), Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. Bobby is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. He has also contributed chapters to three other books, including Faith on the Edge (InterVarsity Press) and Signs of Hope in the City (Judson). Bobby has experience in preaching, teaching, and training on a range of subjects including leadership development, vocational stewardship, and spiritual formation. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.