Willimon/Hauerwas: Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens is an important analysis of how Christians should interact with late 20th-century and early 21st-century culture. [1] The book’s primary argument is that churches should focus on developing Christian life and community rather than attempting to reform secular culture. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon reject the idea that America is a Christian nation; instead, Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land.

For those familiar with Stanley Hauerwas’s work, the book’s theme is no surprise. He has long been of the view that (1) the “Constantinian” merger of the Christian faith with the Roman Empire and (2) the identification of Christian faith with some idealized form of the “American Way of Life” were great mistakes that can only be remedied by the church recovering its identity as the body of Christ.

When I was in seminary, like most seminarians, one of the required courses was “Christian Ethics,” by which our professor meant “public ethics” since there was no interest in personal ethics. After many weeks of reading liberation theology, Reinhold Niebuhr, and a host of academic theologians, most of whom were uninterpretable, we read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom. [2] Finally, a book that seemed more or less biblical, understandable, and applicable to ordinary Christian life and ministry. I read A Community of Character and After Christendom in rapid succession. [3]. When Resident Aliens was published, I bought it, read it briefly, and forgot all about it. Only when I realized it was a necessary part of this series did I get a copy and read it again, this time more closely.

The authors are two of the most prominent figures in Methodism over the past many years. Hauerwas was a distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University. Willimon was a pastor, Chaplain at Duke, and later a Methodist Bishop. Together, they wrote Resident Aliens as a book for laypersons and pastors with chapters relevant to Christian ethics, public ethics, and pastoral ministry. Willimon also happened to be a college friend of a fellow church member, elder, and leader in our church in Houston.

The Constantinian Church

I’m sure many lay people get confused by terms like “Constantinian” and church by people like me. Just to be sure we understand what is meant, in the years between 303 and 313, Emperor Constantine defeated his enemies, became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, declared himself to be a Christian, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that time, the Christian church had, at best, been tolerated and persecuted many times, including in the recent history before 310. Until modern times, beginning about 300 years ago, the Christian faith was the official religion in all parts of Europe. Although other groups were tolerated, they were not the official religion. Occasionally, as with the Jews, they were persecuted. Even the protestant reformation did not change the Christian nature of Europe and its colonies. Although they were now both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and the official state church was not always Roman Catholic, Europe was still Christian.

In such a situation, the church had a privileged position in society. In the United States, that privilege position continued until relatively recently. For example, even as late as the 1990s, in small towns in the rural south of North America, the pastors of the local churches were part of the leadership of the community. This leadership was not merely spiritual but included many things like fundraising for community projects, supporting the local government in its initiatives, and providing a spiritual gloss to government and business activities in the community. In such a situation, it was relatively easy to blur the distinction between what characterized American values, including American political values, and what might constitute a Christian view of the world.

The End of the Constantinian World

Europe became secular after World War I and even more remarkably after World War II. The vast majority of people never attend church, the church has lost its privileged position in society, and an enormous number of immigrants, primarily of the Muslim or Hindu faiths, began a process in which those states were no longer Christian. [4] During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was more or less exempt from the process. However, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, a variety of Supreme Court decisions, and other actions that the center of the church in America all have produced a current situation in which the Christian church in the United States is in nearly the same circumstances as the Christian churches in Europe today. In other words, the “Constantinian Settlement” is over.

To their credit, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon were early to understand the changes coming to the American church and American society. In particular, Hauerwas was an early advocate that the church had to learn how to be the church in an era vastly different than anything experienced in the West in 2000 years and anything that the Christian church in America had ever experienced. Today, Christian leaders can look back on the last 30 years and wish they had paid closer attention to the warnings and advice people like Hauerwas and Willimon are giving.

Similarities Betweem the Religious Left and Right

When Hauerwas and Willimon began writing, they had to be careful what they said so that the religious and political left would not misunderstand them. While they were critical of the religious left, they were also critical of the religious right. In fact, Hauerwas and Willimon believed that these two groups were just two sides of the same mistake: They were trying to maintain the alliance between the powers of this world and the Christian message that would continue the church’s importance in modern secular democracy. Their difference was not in their strategy but in their tactics. Underneath both was the desire to maintain the alliance between the government and the church.

For the religious left, what is sometimes called liberal Christianity was obviously true. The social policies of the left that favored the United States academia were obviously true, and the proper course of action for Christians was to support liberal Christianity and left-wing politics. For the religious right, it was obvious that the prescriptions of the Religious Right were true. The religious beliefs of conservative Christians were true; therefore, it was obvious that the Christian church should support traditional Christianity and right-wing politics.

Hauerwas and Willimon believe that both approaches are profoundly mistaken and misguided. The two positions are heads and tails of the same religious coin. Both liberal and conservative Christianity are incorrect about the implications of Christianity for public life, and the actions were compromised by their pretensions to favor the secular leadership of the nation. In both cases, their error made them susceptible to manipulation by those in or seeking power. We can now see clearly that Hauerwas and Willimon were onto something.

Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens’s title catches the reader’s immediate attention and incorporates the book’s primary message. In the author’s view, Christians in America and the West need to become accustomed to being resident aliens. Christians live in our society, but they are citizens of another kingdom. [5] The biblical basis for this is the biblical notion that Abraham and the patriarchs were led to the promised land but never received that land. They wandered as resident aliens among the peoples of the land. As the author of Hebrews puts it:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from afar, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The patriarchs were aliens in the lands through which they traveled and lived. Similarly, the early church was ostracized from various aspects of Roman society and maintained its presence as “resident aliens.” They were in the Roman Empire but citizens of the Kingdom of God. This passage and others like it constitute the Biblical foundation for the proposal made in Resident Aliens.

Hauerwas and Willimon also use the phrase “colony’ to describe the church’s situation in Western culture. [6] The church is like a colony of heaven planted within the societies of the world, colonies populated by resident aliens. As the authors put it:

We hope to recover the sense that we try to live the Sermon on the Mount because this is the nature of our God, and it is our destination that we should be such people. The colony is the vessel that carries us there. It is not apart from the vessel but within this vessel that we not only know the truth but are carried along with it. [7]

In these two metaphors, “resident aliens’ and the church as a “colony” lie the book’s strengths and limitations.

Resident Aliens. Let’s take the term resident aliens first. A resident alien is a citizen of one nation who resides in another country. For example, my wife and I lived in Scotland for a short time. We resided in Scotland for an entire summer. I was still a citizen of the United States of America. I was resident in Scotland. I couldn’t vote in Scotland. I was not a member of the national health or retirement schemes. I was living in one place but a citizen of somewhere else.

It’s beguiling to think this is an adequate description of the church. But the question is raised, “To what extent is it? “I am a Christian, a church member, and a resident of Texas in the United States. I’m not completely an “alien” in any of those roles. Compelling sermons can be given to Christian audiences saying we should be resident aliens in our culture. Still, in reality, to some degree or another, the description is incomplete. In reality, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God and citizens of the United States at the same time.

In another context, I’ve pointed out that when I travel abroad, particularly in Third World countries, I am very aware that I am an American. I’m not a citizen of the country I am in, a part of their culture, or, in most cases, a full participant in the life of their churches. I am a guest. In Scotland, even though I was preaching regularly in a Scottish church, I was a resident alien. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, I am even more aware of my status as a foreigner. In America, I’m a citizen and a Christian.

This is not just an academic point. It’s a point of life and ministry. It’s not that we can or should learn to be full citizens of the kingdom of God who happen to be residents of the United States. The reality is that we have an even more difficult job than being resident aliens. Western Christians must learn to be citizens of their nation and love and serve it as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A reason why this is important has to do with its implications for our citizenship in both worlds. If I am fully a citizen of the kingdom of God and fully a citizen of the United States, then I must find a way to be loyal to both of my citizenships. I have to struggle and make decisions with loyalty to both my citizenships. As a Christian, it seems to me that the binding requirement is self-giving love. My citizenship in the United States does not eliminate my duty to act in love toward my fellow citizens—even if they’re not Christians. My citizenship in the kingdom of God demands that I love others—even if they’re my enemies.

This situation can put Christians in some difficult situations. As the life of Dietrich, Bonhoeffer illustrates, one can be a citizen of a nation whose actions and values put one in tension with the values and intentions of the kingdom of God. [8] When that happens, we have to decide what we will do. We must find a way to be loyal as best we can to both. It may even be impossible to make a wholly moral and Christian response as with Bonhoeffer. I might have to make a choice that is either contrary to the values of the kingdom, the values of the kingdom of God, or both. A good deal of the scholarship concerning Dietrich. Bonhoeffer ignores that Bonhoeffer was committing treason under German law in choosing to join the conspiracy against Hitler. He also potentially violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bonhoeffer was very aware of his dilemma and the compromise he was making. He knew that if captured, he would be lawfully executed as a traitor. He felt he must take that action as a German and Christian. He died as a result. Even today, many people do not consider him a martyr for that reason. That’s human life as it really lived.

An implication of the duty to be fully resident in both kingdoms and bring God’s love to bear in our Christian roles is that Christian faith cannot justify my being “subversive.” This is a popular word in academia today and very popular among certain Christians, but it’s the wrong way of looking at our duties as Christians. When confronted with aspects of my society that are wrong, my duty is not to subvert that society. I must love it in such a way that it changes. That love might even require a cross. It did for Jesus. His enemies saw Jesus as subversive, but he was not. He loved his enemies enough to oppose the injustice and lack of faith that prevented them from also enjoying their status as creatures made in God’s image.

Colony. The authors also employ the metaphor of the church as a “colony” of heaven located on earth. This metaphor is also helpful but ultimately of limited utility. First of all, what a colony! The apostle Paul and others in the ancient world would have been familiar with what a colony was. For example, the nation-state of Greece had colonies in what is today part of Italy. The people there were Greek. They spoke Greek. Their social institutions were Greek. Their culture was Greek. The colony was an outpost of Greece in Sicily and southern Italy.

Now, there is a part of this metaphor that is true. The church, as it exists in any culture, is, to some degree, to be seen as a colony of the kingdom of God planted amid another culture. But it’s different. The people in my church are primarily Americans, but we have a few members and regular attendees from elsewhere in the world. We are all Texans, the number of them or imports from the northern part of the United States in California. We live in America, in Texas, and San Antonio. We are subject to the laws of each of these jurisdictions. We participate in the culture of our home. We are also gathered as a colony of heaven. We are that, but we are more. We are the family of God, the household of God, and the people of God, also Biblical metaphors that point to the full reality of the church.


In my former church, I had a friend who went to college with Willimon and often spoke admiringly of him as a person and thinker. While at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, I got to hear Stanley Hauerwas in person for some reason. As mentioned, Hauerwas’s work was and is crucial for me as a pastor and thinker. They are two great leaders of the Wesleyan tradition with an impact on many Christian groups. I would not want any of my little criticism to indicate that their insights have not taught and continue to teach me. They do. Before the series is over, I will have the opportunity to talk about what I call “just war pacifism.” In thinking about Hauerwas’s defense of pacifism and pondering the example of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and others, I began to see the dangers of an unmodified form of just war theory. (I am very confident that Hauerwas would never agree with my conclusions and would mount a devastating critique of my ideas! That is part of my reluctance to share my thoughts. The other is the comments of a young philosopher with whom I talked about the idea years ago.)

In the meantime, Resident Aliens is a wonderful and informative book that all pastors and laypersons should read in considering their ideas about faith and politics.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983),

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991)

[4] France is often used as a poster child for this phenomenon. France entered the 20th Century as a secular state with a strong Christian, primarily Catholic presence. Since World War II, it has become an almost militant secular state with a limited Christian presence. Recently, the government has taken measures to secure its “secularity” because of the enormous Muslim population, a population that is growing much faster than the secular French population. It has also suffered social unrest as a result of the activities of more radical Muslim groups.

[5] Resident Aliens, at 49.

[6] Id, at 50.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Hauerwas and Willimon use Bonhoeffer as an example, and Hauerwas has written on Bonhoeffer. Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day “A Longing for Justice”

When I was in undergraduate school, I took a class in Political Philosophy. We discussed a big question: “Is there really any such thing as justice?” Interestingly, Many people think power is the only thing that really exists. Later, in law school, I trained to be an officer of the court system, which theoretically seeks justice. Interestingly, we never had a single discussion about the subject. We were preparing to win cases and assumed that justice would happen if we all played by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Every so often throughout the years, I would wonder, “Is there anything called ‘justice,’ or is justice the name we give to the opinions of whoever wins in a social or legal conflict?”

This Christmas, our mediations have centered around Isaiah and the verses of a chosen Christmas Carol. Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the American Civil War, a time that bears some resemblance to our own. Here are the Poet Laruate’s lyrics:

I heard the bells on Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,/ There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thought how, as the day had come,/The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

The Carol speaks for many of us this Christmas Season.

Our Innate Sense of Justice

When Kathy and I had children, the subject of justice never came up so long as we had one child, the apple of our eyes and the eyes of her grandparents. Our lucky first child got pretty much whatever she wanted. Then came our second child, and when they got old enough, we would hear one or the other claim, “That is not fair. _____ got more than I did.” By the time we had four children, we heard this complaint a lot. For a time, we tried to be fair about everything, but no matter what we did, someone would think that someone else got a better present, a bigger room, or whatever.

At some point, every parent has experienced the claim that what they are doing is unfair. What interests me about the claim is not whether it is true or false but the fact that children and adults seem to have a kind of natural idea of justice and fairness, and we complain when we are not treated as we believe we deserve or when we feel that we have not received what we deserve. In other words, the idea of justice seems to be an innate part of human nature.

The Jewish People and Injustice

Humans do not necessarily agree about what justice is, but we long for justice. We want ourselves, our people, our family, our religion, and our friends to be treated fairly. People have always had such a longing. On the other hand, injustice is a fact of human existence. The Jews had a heightened sense of injustice. The history of the Jewish people is filled with instances of great injustice. After being invited to enter Egypt, they were enslaved for over 400 years. After they escaped that captivity, they were frequently attacked by neighboring tribes and nations. After the kingdom of David was divided, the ten northern tribes were subjected to dispersion and terrible treatment by the Assyrians. After Judea was captured, it was subjected to captivity by the Babylonians. The Greeks and Romans mistreated the Jews. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been a terrible problem. The Jews have been mistreated in the 20th century, especially in Germany under Hitler. Today, we see the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the West, even in our own country.

Isaiah and the Just King

The prophet Isaiah longed for a just society. One central theme of Isaiah is the theme of justice and injustice. Isaiah believed that the punishment of God was coming upon Judah partially because of social injustice (See Isaiah 1:21 and 59:4-8). Repeatedly, the prophet speaks of the injustice of Jewish society. Here is a vision from Isaiah:

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty, and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds, they stand (Isaiah 32:1-8).

A Cold and Unjust World.

Several years ago, the Christmas theme came from movies made from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. [2] In the first book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are magically transported into the world of Narnia. It turns out that Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who has arranged for Narnia to be frozen in winter. It is always winter and never spring, and Christmas never comes. The witch is cruel and powerful, and her magic wand immediately freezes everyone who opposes her. There is no justice in Narnia.

Of course, Narnia is meant to be a magical rendition of the Planet Earth. Just as Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, our world is often under the domination of evil rulers, including that spiritual reality or person we sometimes call “Satan.” Just as the White Witch has made Narnia a cold place, our world is not as intended. Just as there is no justice in Narnia, there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, racial injustice, prejudice against all sorts of people, including Christians and Jews, laws that discriminate, judges that do not do justice, and a host of other kinds of injustices. We  easily join the poet in saying, “there is no peace on earth.” None of this makes God happy.

The same thing was true in the time of Isaiah. Here is how he describes his day and time:

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments; they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue malicious schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths (Isaiah 59:4-8).

The situation, as Isaiah saw it, was just as complex as the situation we sometimes see around us. And, just as our own prophets foresee trouble if we do not change our national ways, Isaiah predicted suffering if the Jews did not change their national behavior. Sin, it seems, has consequences—something we sometimes forget.

The World We Long For.

In the Narnia books, the true King of Narnia, Aslan—a Christ figure—is coming. One indication that Aslan is coming is that the long Narnia winter is ending, and Spring is finally coming. Even Santa Claus appears to give the children gifts before Spring arrives. In Isaiah, the prophet also uses an image of nature being changed because of what the Messiah will do when he comes as a symbol of the spiritual healing of the land of his people. In Isaiah 11, after speaking of the supernatural justice of the expected Anointed One, the prophet has the following vision:

Righteousness will be his belt, and faithfulness will be the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11: 5-9).

The idea is that nature is impacted by justice and injustice. Human beings and human life are changed for the better when we seek justice and live peacefully with others. [3]

Whether or not we visualize the future in poetic terms, we all long for a just world and believe that a just and peaceful world would be happier than the world we live in. Unfortunately, almost all of us also desire our injustice to remain in that world. We want the injustice that impacts us removed, but we do not feel so strongly about the injustice we inflict on others. God will not have it this way. God wants to get rid of all injustice, the injustice of the rich and the poor, of the powerful and the powerless, of the insiders and the outsiders. God desires a perfectly just world.

The Work We Do in the Meantime.

Of course, we will not have a perfect world, at least not for the foreseeable future. This world will always be imperfect. Just as the Bible gives us a humanly unreachable standard for leadership, the Bible also gives us an unattainable standard for justice. We are not God, and we are not gods and goddesses. Therefore, we will never have a perfectly just world or society on this earth. This does not mean we should not work towards one.

Not so many years ago, Kathy and I had the opportunity to meet the singer Sarah Groves. She sang for a retreat we were on. I learned that she donates a bit of her time to an organization called “International Justice Mission” or “IJM.” IJM is an international justice mission dedicated to eradicating slavery worldwide. We do not like to think about it, but there are more slaves today than ever before in history. In particular, many women are essentially enslaved in the prostitution industry. Some of these women are kidnapped, drugged, and sold into the trade. In poorer countries, families may sell one member into slavery to provide for the rest of the family. IJM attempts to expose, halt, and assist in the prosecution of this kind of slavery.

One of our elders and a few others visited Thailand to visit a mission for such women. They had a week or so of helping and learning about this serious problem. Kathy has been involved with Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico. At least some girls Casa Mami helps would otherwise be on the streets of Reynosa and other cities. We help in a lot of ways.

I do not want to continue to go on and on with examples. Instead, I want to point out some things we can all do to bring peace and justice into the world as we await the time in which God will act to bring justice in the form of  a “New Heaven and New Earth.” Each of us, in our hearts, knows of some area in which there is an injustice that we would like to overcome or help others to overcome. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite the Risen Lord into the situation. We can pray that God will intervene and that God’s wisdom and love will come into situations of injustice.
  • Resist the temptation to defeatism and negativity. It is easy to complain. It is hard to do something positive.
  • Study the Bible and the specific injustice you are interested in. Gaining a Godly perspective and a worldly understanding is a part of learning to overcome injustice.
  • Act. A true disciple of Christ worships God, grows in Christ-likeness, and serves others as three pegs of the Christian life. Doing something is important.
  • Be patient. No problem, especially no serious one, is quickly or painlessly overcome. We must hang in there.

It is a strength of Christianity that we look forward to God’s help overcoming injustice. We need to hold onto our need for God’s help. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on working for justice because that is what God would have us do in the meantime.

The One Hope We Have.

We cannot be entirely sure of what justice is in this world. We also cannot know completely that our actions are bringing about justice. Often, in liberal churches, sight is lost of the fact that we cannot bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth solely by our actions. Often, in conservative churches, we forget that God has created his church upon the earth to bring a foreshadowing of the kingdom until Christ returns.

The cross is a great reminder that God suffers injustice with everyone who suffers injustice. Christ was arrested unjustly, tried unjustly, and crucified unjustly. God knows and understands the reality and power of injustice. The cross is where the mercy and justice of God meet—and it is a reminder that God is with us when we suffer injustice. The resurrection is a reminder that God will ultimately win over injustice.

Christmas is our reminder that the King has come. Winter may not be over, and it may get colder before Spring, but spring is coming.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” ends with this Word of hope:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,/ For Christ is here; His Spirit near/ Brings peace on earth, goodwill to men.” [4]


This is my final post of 2023. I hope that 2024 will bring an end to this long series of posts on Justice. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that 2024 produces the sequel to Marshland. Merry Christmas Season and a very Happy New Year!

Copyright 2024, G.  Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (I864). This blog is not original, but is based on two sermons I preached at Christmas in my former Church. I am a great fan of the Casting Crowns Version of this hymn, which we sang every year!

[2] The Chronicles of Narnia are published by Harper Trophy, A Division of Harper Collins, New York, New York. The first book in the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[3] I have more than once noted in the past that we modern people too often discount and fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world we inhabit and its consequences, even upon those with whom we have no direct impact. Just as in the physical world, there can be “spooky action at a distance” in the subatomic world, in the macro world, I am convinced that spiritual realities “act at a distance.” I have seen the phenomena with my own eyes.

[4] “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” previously cited.

Peaceful Light in Gathering Darkness

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). There is a paradox in the life of faith. We believe that through faith in Christ, we can have a relationship with God, who dwells in light inaccessible and whose wisdom transcends any human wisdom. Christ embodied this divine light. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This Sunday/Christmas Eve, we celebrate the Great Light that will ultimately illuminate and renew our world, undoing the darkness of war, conflict, power politics, and human degradation and bringing a kingdom of peace. The light has come. We now await its victory.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery that the love of God was so great that he bridged the gap between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, between the demands of love and law, and became one of us so that we might be restored and become like him. Therefore, this Sunday, as Christians gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, we can join with Christians all over the world to sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,/ How still we see thee lie!/Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by;/ Yet in the dark street shineth/ The Everlasting Light; /The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight. [1]

In the dark streets of our cities, wherever Christ is present, the Everlasting Light shines.

Walking in Darkness

Occasionally, humans all feel as if we are walking in a great darkness separated from the True Light of God’s Presence. Some of us think that way much of the time. Our human plans are unfulfilled and seemingly blocked. Our well-meaning prayers are unanswered. Our most important relationships are troubled. Our employment is uncertain. Our nation and the prosperity and freedoms we take for granted are at risk. Our character flaws seem impossible to overcome. In such situations, we can quickly feel overwhelmed. Our sin and selfishness seem inescapable and devastating to our hopes and dreams.

Recognizing Darkness

The prophet Isaiah foretold that those who walk in darkness will see a great light. He does not say, “Those who are already in the light will see a light.” He does not say, “Those who are sure they do not need any light will see a great light.” It says, “Those who walk in darkness, who understand their condition, will see a great light” (Isaiah 9:1-2). Light is reserved for those who recognize and are tired of darkness.

When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” physically or symbolically, the assurance that there is a God of Mercy and Love who cares for us makes an incredible difference. The blessings of God may be delayed. The salvation of God may be impossible to predict humanly. The darkness may seem impenetrable. However, the Creating and Renewing God, who can do anything, is still there.

The True Light

How can we human beings know this? There is more than one reason, but the reason we celebrate at Christmas is this: Because God sent his one and only Son into the world, we can know that the Divine Presence is never far from us in steadfast and self-giving love, even if we cannot sense its reality at the moment. Right at the beginning of his gospel, John makes this point when he tells his readers that the true light has come:

 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:9-11).

Jesus himself refers to himself as the true light that can dispel the spiritual darkness of the human race. In John 9, after Jesus heals a man blind from birth. In explaining the healing, he declares, While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). There is no physical, emotional, or spiritual darkness that this true light cannot enlighten.

All human beings are strange conglomerations of darkness and light, good and evil, love and indifference, justice and injustice, diligence and laziness, and the like. We are all imperfect creatures, made in the image of God but in whom that image has been defaced to some degree. Nevertheless, God loves us and desires for us to be restored to the original image placed within every one of us. Each Christmas Eve, we celebrate the entrance of that true life into the world in human form.

The Peace that Passes Understanding

Perhaps this Christmas Season, the most challenging part of “O Little Town of Bethlehem for us to accept is the third verse, which reads:

For Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above,/while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love./O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, /and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

Jesus warns us that his peace is not the peace we might expect. In John 14, he tells his disciples:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:7). He would not have warned his disciples not to be troubled or afraid if he had not known that the peace he offers would leave them plenty of room reason to fear. There would be opposition, persecution, and even death. There would be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6). There would be dishonesty, corruption, and evil plots.

When we light the Candle of Peace this particular Christmas Eve, we can take heart that the peace we receive cannot be broken by terrorists or international intrigue. It is a peace that far transcends any human peace. It is not a peace that requires armies or agencies or great bureaucracies. It is a peace that requires only a heart open to a tiny baby born in an obscure village at the edge of a great empire. It requires ears to hear in the cry of that baby the Wisdom of the Ages incarnate. It needs the eyes to see the True Light that enlightens all who receive him.

Unless I am very mistaken, 2024 will be a difficult year. Fortunately, the peace and happiness God promises is not dependent on human circumstances but on the steadfast love of God.

Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved!

[1] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” music by Peter Christian Lutkin. (Chicago, IL: C. F. Summy Co., 1867).

Joy in a Joyless World

Yesterday, in many churches, the congregation celebrated the third Sunday in Advent and lit what they called “The Candle of Joy.” In just a few days, Christians worldwide will gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Many congregations will sing “Joy to the World,” the first verse of which reads as follows:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing. [1]

“Joy to the World” celebrates in song the birth of the savior of the world (v. 2), who will conquer the power of sin and death (v. 3) and rule the world with truth and grace (v. 4). If this is true, then indeed not just Christians but everyone should sing, “Joy to the world! the Savior reigns!” The world of political manipulation., violence, war, and dearth is over. A new kingdom has begun its entry into the world. Unfortunately, the world does not recognize the birth of this Savior of Love, the Prince of Peace, by whom, in the act of Divine love, provision was made for the undoing of sin, death, and the consequences of human finitude, selfishness, and evil.

Joy to the World

The hymn “Joy to the World” comes from a verse in Psalm 95, which happened to be my meditation psalm this morning:

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. The Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land (Psalm 95:1-5).

The meditation for this week is all about joy. Joy involves happiness, but it is more than mere “happiness.” Joy is an excellence of achievement, success, or well-being. It is not just being healthy and whole but the joyous recognition that we have achieved health and wholeness. Joy is a state of peace recognized by the one experiencing it as something final and absolute. (at least for the moment) Joy is the recognition of the reality of the Shalom God intends for the whole world, that state of perfect justice, beauty, and health for which all human beings long.

This particular Christmas, it may be difficult to feel joy for many people, myself included. In just a few weeks, I will turn 73 years old. I can feel the increasing weakness and fragility of an aging physical body. The antics of our government and prominent educational institutions, the ballooning indebtedness of our society, and evident moral and aesthetic decay are not reasons for joy. The increasing manipulativeness of elites signals difficult times ahead. The wars in the Middle East and Ukraine are not reasons for joy nor is the increasing antisemitism of Western societies. [2]

The emergence of a new round of antisemitism and opposition to almost any religious values reminds me of the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak out for me. [3]

I am afraid we live in a time similar to the time of Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a time to speak up, hoping that one day we can experience the joy of good success in a noble endeavor.

The Apostle Paul also lived in a day and time when it was challenging to sing “Joy to the World,” yet he encouraged his churches to experience the joy of Christ. In First Thessalonians, after his rejection and mistreatment there, he writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 16-18). In Philippians, Paul writes from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Over and over again, Paul speaks of the importance of Christian joy in his letters. Near the beginning of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians, he speaks of joy, and near the end in prison in Rome, he speaks of joy. He is not, however, speaking of merely human joy.

In his letter, James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). This verse reveals to us that Christian joy is not a circumstantial joy. It is not a joy that comes and goes with feelings of health or disease, success or failure, affluence or poverty, peace or war.  Christian is the joy of faith that comes from believing and living based on the promises of God.

In the Old Testament, the symbol of the kind of joy based on God’s faithfulness to his promises is found in many places. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 51:

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you;
for Abraham was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. You see, the Lord comforts his people; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like the Garden of Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:1-3).

Isaiah 51:11 goes on to conclude with the words of one of my favorite praise chorus from my younger years:

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away (Isaiah 51:11).

Christian joy is a joy based upon the promises of a faithful God. It is faith that at the end of the Abrahamic journey of faith, there will be joy as God’s kingdom is finally a reality in our lives and in the lives of those we love, indeed in the lives of all people of whatever race, color, or creed.

The Faulty Vision of Modernity

A contrary vision has captured our sad and dark world—a vision of a perfect earthly kingdom created through technology, bureaucracy, and the ideas of an intellectual and material elite. This elite and its followers no longer hear the muffled cry of a baby born in a manger in an obscure village in Palestine 2000 years ago, long before the modern world. A kind of spiritual deafness has engulfed our world. Sometimes it engulfs me as well.

The followers of this new ideology, left and right, do not listen to hear the voice of angels. They want to hear the cry of the scion of a wealthy and influential family in London, Moscow, Peking, Pretoria, Riyad, Tehran, Tokyo, Washington, or some other capital city. They want the advice of the great universities of the West, almost all formed by devout Christians. They want the development of a new and greater technology that will create their vision of a perfect world—at least for them. They ultimately and inevitably want to hear the cry of an Alexander the Great, not an obscure baby born to be a Suffering Servant, despised and rejected by most of the human race (Isaiah 53:3).

The reasons for the rejection of Christ by Western elites are complex. The development of Newtonian physics and modern technology gave birth to the dream of a world run by human scientific reason where everything could be rationally organized according by human scientific and technological wisdom. For 300 years, this was the dream of most intellectuals. The dissenting voices of Romantics were heard, only to eventually produce the figure of Nietzsche and the glorification of human will, the Will to Power. This, in turn, created the intellectual foundation for another Alexander the Great. This figure had gone by many names: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol—name your poison. The vision cast by the Enlightenment only began to decay when the reality dawned on a few that no such paradise was being created either in the capitalist West or the Communist East. Today, there are few true believers, but many true users of the Gospel of Power and Greed.

The New Vision

Interestingly, for over a century now, we have known that the picture of the world as nothing but matter and force is not an accurate picture of reality. Reality is much more like an organism than it is like a machine. We live in a universe of unimaginable rationality and universal relationality. It is a world in which not a sparrow falls from the sky without consequence. It is a world in which every act of love or hate is felt not just somewhere but everywhere It is a world where meaning can be found at every level of reality, from basic particles to the complexities of human civilizations.

There is plenty of room in this new vision of reality for freedom, love, grace, and other things values. This new world vision has space for real truth, justice, beauty, and goodness. There is also room for God and a God who rules in self-giving love and grace to restore his troubled creation. In this new vision of reality there is plenty of room for wisdom and love, and a savior that rules with grace and peace, if only people will listen to the voice of angels and the announcement of the kingdom. Angels can sing in this new world.

This vision means that Christians will not gather this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sing “Joy to the World” in vain nor as deluded participants in a dead and dying religion. Instead they gather as participants in a “New Heaven and New Earth,” looking forward to that day in which the world will freely recognize its self-centered and destructive ways and bow in humility before the power of Divine Love, of a love that never commands or demands but offers itself for the beloved. It is true, you see, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”(John 3:16). He gave. That is why we give gifts on Christmas Day. God gave us his Beloved Son, and so we give human gifts in response to that love.

The tens of thousands of congregations worldwide that will gather this Christmas Day, large and small, are what Paul called the “First Fruits” of the gift of Christ (I Corinthians 15:20-23).  Christians of every age are those who, by grace, are called to become children of God in order to proclaim and live out the birth of the Kingdom of Christ in the world—not an earthly kingdom of kings, presidents, prime ministers, chairpersons, and the like, with armies and great bureaucracies to enforce their decrees, but a heavenly kingdom of love most graciously offered and given without any demand of a response.

We can sing “Joy to the World” this and every Christmas because the One Who Was, Is, and Will Be, the Alpha and Omega, the Bright and Morning Star, has been born into the world. His kingdom has begun and he does rule, and will rule the earth in grace and truth despite what we fallen human creatures make of his creation. We can sing “Joy to the World” because this obscure rabbi and traveling teacher and healer is the Rock of our Salvation, a deliverance he enacted for us in human history and continues quietly and in love to work out in history, not just for a few but for all people and the entirety of his creation.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs,

All Rights Reserved

[1] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719).

[2] I want to be sure that it is understood that all racism and prejudice against people for reasons of color, creed, political views, race or otherwise is contrary to the vision of Christ and the nature of the God of Love..

[3] Martin Niemöller, First They Came…”  (downloaded from various sources December 18, 2023). This quote has many different versions because it came from various oral presentations. I have used the most inclusive version I could find.

The Prince of Peace in a World of War

This past Sunday, we lit the Candle of Peace, and in our Sunday school class we read these words:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end
(Isaiah 9:2-7).

As we read these verses, young men and women were dying on battlefields in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Ukraine, among other places. The reading reminded us that the world is not as we wish it would be. At our Church and another we visited yesterday, there were Christmas pageants, and we were blessed to have a daughter and two of our grandchildren with us last week. Looking at the children, it is impossible not to remember that there are children all over the world suffering in places of war, oppression, disease, and death. How is it possible to take comfort from these verses in such a world?

Jesus was a Realist

When Jesus came, he recognized that the power of violence was great. He also realized that the violence and war of our world do not come from conditions outside of the human soul but from a deep disease within the human soul. It is not a disease that is easily curable. One of Jesus’s most depressing sayings is found in Matthew 25:

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt. 25:6-13).

Jesus was under no illusions. Our world is rife with the curse of violence and war.

The cure, according to the New Testament, involves the Cross. The Prince of Peace had to be a person of peace in a violent world right up to the end. The cure was not for the Prince of Peace to be a person of peace for a little while and then raise an army to defeat the Romans. The cure was to forgo the temptation of an earthly kingdom won by conquest and create another kingdom, a kingdom of Peace, in which the Prince of Peace rules within the boundaries of a broken and violent world. Jesus was a realist. He knew the end of wars, and rumors of battles could not be one last war.

A World of Violence

If nothing else, the past few years should have convinced all of us that we live in a world of war and violence. Immediately after the First World War, the “War to End All Wars,” the world experienced the Great Depression, the harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious allies, the emergence of Naziism, and finally, the Second World War. Then, China began to emerge and fought a proxy war in Korea, the Korean War. I was born during the Korean War. By the end of the 1950s, we were involved in the Vietnam War. When the Vietnam War ended, the Cold War finally ended, and one commentator unwisely proclaimed, “The End of History.” Radical Islam emerged as a reaction against Western ideas, and the United States was soon caught up in two Middle East Wars. We and the Europeans are involved in a War in the Ukraine against Russian expansionism, and the War in Gaza has emerged in the latest confrontation with radical, terroristic Islam. Some people feel that a war with Iran is inevitable. In other words, we are experiencing exactly what Jesus predicted, “Wars and Rumors of Wars.”

The Prince and People of Peace in a Violent World

Jesus speaks in two ways concerning the Kingdom of God he came to institute. Jesus does say that the Kingdom of God is within us.  “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). It is easy to think that the Kingdom is something spiritual. That is not what Jesus meant. The “within you” is plural and sometimes translated as “in the midst of you.” The Kingdom of God is both an internal thing and a communal thing. The people of God are the Kingdom of God working within history to exemplify the character of the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace as a body. We might say, “The Kingdom of God begins at home!” Jesus is present in our violent world wherever the people of God proclaim and live out the Gospel of Peace.

Stanley Hauerwas, in his book The Peaceable Kingdom, puts it this way:

…Jesus’s life is integral to the meaning, content, and possibility of the kingdom. For the announcement of the reality of this kingdom, of the possibility of living, a life of forgiveness and peace with one’s enemies, is based on our confidence that the kingdom has become a reality through the life and work of this man, Jesus of Nazareth. His life is the life of the end – this is the way the world is meant to be –and thus those who follow him become a people of the last times the people of the new age. [1]

Hauerwas constantly reminds his readers that this is the fundamental aspect of Christian ethics: the building of a community of character in which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the foundation of life.

The Prince of Peace and a False Eschatology

Sometimes, Christians speak of Jesus coming once as the Lamb of God but will come again at the end of history as a conquering hero. This is a false and dangerous eschatology. God is the same: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Sometimes, this view is expressed as based on Revelation, which reads as follows:

Then I saw Heaven wide open, and before my eyes appeared a white horse, whose rider is called faithful and true, for his judgment and his warfare are just. His eyes are a flame of fire and there are many diadems upon his head. There is a name written upon him, known only to himself. He is dressed in a cloak dipped in blood, and the name by which he is known is the Word of God. The armies of Heaven follow him, riding upon white horses and clad in white and spotless linen. Out of his mouth, there comes a sharp sword with which to strike the nations. ‘He will rule them with a rod of iron,’ and alone he will tread the winepress of the furious wrath of God the Almighty. Written upon his cloak and upon his thigh is the name, KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS(Revelation 19:11-16, Phillips).

Some see in this verse a bloodthirsty Jesus now come to defeat the enemies of God in a battle just like all the battles that mar human history.

Note, however, the phrase “Out of his mouth there comes a sharp sword with which to strike the nations” (Revelation 19:15). No ancient warrior put a sword in their mouth to fight an enemy any more than a modern soldier would put an AK-47 or M-16 in their mouth during combat. The sword is the sword of the Spirit, the sword of the Gospel of Peace. In other words, the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow can be counted on to defeat his enemies with Truth and Love within and at the end of history. The robe the victorious Christ wears is already stained in his blood, the blood he shed on the cross for the world’s sins, before the final battle even begins. [2] The only weapon the Risen Christ needs to defeat his enemies is the Gospel of peace [3] We Christians do not need to sharpen our physical swords in preparation for the last day. We need only live a life reflecting the wisdom and love of Christ.

Back to Our Broken World

Where does all this leave us? We stand in precisely the same position as did Isaiah and John in Revelation: We live as a people of peace, who seek a world of shalom, where justice and righteousness reign (Isaiah 9:7), the enemies of human flourishing have been defeated, and the King of King rules (Revelation 19:16). However, we should not and cannot delude ourselves. We are not in such a time. The battle is not over today. We are neither in Heaven nor the Heavenly City. We are here on earth in the midst of human history. There is no escape. There is only the call to “Follow me.”

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), 85. This is one of the finest books on Christian ethics ever written. While I cannot bring myself to subscribe entirely to his view, all Christians should hope his view is correct. As for me, Like Walter Wink, I find myself”not a very “nonviolent person” Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of Domination (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 279). I do not regard this as a virtue.

[2] Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993, 2006), 91).

[3] C. B. Baird,  The Revelation of St John the Divine (New York, Harper & Row, 1966), 245,

No One Likes Waiting

This week is sometimes called the “Week of Anticipation,” and the candle in an Advent wreath is the “Candle of Anticipation.” Anticipation is, unfortunately, another word for “Waiting.” We like anticipation. We dislike waiting for what we anticipate.

The last book of the Old Testament ends with the following:

Remember the teaching of Moses, my servant, and those laws and rules I gave to him on Mount Sinai for all the Israelites. In any case, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before that great and terrifying day of the Lord’s judgment. Elijah will help parents love their children and children love their parents. Otherwise, I will come and put a curse on the land (Malachi 4:4-6, NIV).

The timeline goes something like this: Malachi was written somewhere around 400 years before the birth of Christ, and the coming of John the Baptist, whom Jesus states was the fulfillment of the promise that there would come a prophet like Elijah. In the meantime, the Jews were to observe the law and wait patiently for the Messiah to come and an end to their suffering and subservience to foreign powers. The Jewish people anticipated the Messiah but disliked the waiting and the events of the time between the prophecy and its fulfillment.

400 Years of Waiting

During those 400 years, Israel was ruled by Persia, Greece (Alexander the Great), and Rome. There were events of importance during those years, such as revolts and attempts by Israel to free themselves from captivity. It is possible that parts of Daniel were either written during that time or refer to events of that time, but the days of the Old Testament prophets were at an end. In particular,  no great wonder-working reincarnation of  Elijah appeared  (I Kings 17-19).

What were God’s people to do in the meantime? They were asked to continue to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them when he delivered them from captivity in Egypt, pray, and obey the commandments and teachings God had given them.

The Problem with Waiting

I don’t think very many people enjoy waiting. Today, Kathy and I went Christmas shopping. I anticipated purchasing her a Christmas present. Unfortunately, for part of the time, I waited while Kathy picked out a perfume. It turns out that picking out perfume is not as straightforward or as simple as I thought. It’s not like buying a carton of milk. You have to try on several perfumes. You have to try on many different perfumes from, in our case, five different stores. Then, you must walk around to see if you still like the perfume after it dries. One lovely lady explained to me that she always had to walk around for some time to see if the perfume gave her a headache!

Frankly, shopping for perfume gives me a headache. My headache, caused by a couple of hours’ delay, does not begin to approach the problem of waiting 400 years. I have trouble maintaining my faith when the wait is in the days or weeks, and maybe a year or two—400 years seems impossible. Perhaps you are like me.

Unfortunately, we live in an age that lacks patience. We want what we want, and we want it right now. God, on the other hand, is very, very, very patient. For God, “a thousand years is like an evening gone” (Psalm 90:4). That makes 400 years a blink of an eye.

 If modern science is correct, God created the universe we inhabit and the human race over billions of years—13.7 billion years, to be exact. Scientists tell us that most people, myself included, have difficulty understanding the vision of science in this area because we simply cannot imagine a time scale that is billions of years long. A God who can work on that kind of timeline is a God we can hardly imagine. A God who works on a 13.7-year timeline just to get you and me born and raised is a patient God who works his purposes slowly, patiently, wisely, and lovingly, no matter the time required to accomplish his will and purpose.

It is easy to see that a God with a few billion years of patience does not count time in quite the same way we do. This may not seem like good news, but it is. For one thing, God’s patience means that God does not get discouraged. When things don’t exactly go as he wishes, like when humans fell in the Garden and sin entered the world, God patiently sets things right. As we know the story, it began with one man and woman (Abraham and Sarah) and continued through that one family for generations until one Christmas night, a baby was born in Bethlehem in Judea—a spec on the Roman map and not even a spec when one considers the infinite size of the universe.

Forgiveness and Fulfillment

Today’s text in my devotional guide was Isaiah 40:

Comfort my people and console them, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim that her time of servitude is over and her guilt has been expiated. Indeed, she has received double punishment from the Lord’s hand for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-3).

The story the Old Testament tells ends with Israel, having been disobedient to God, and lost its promised land, returning to slavery, this time in Babylon. From the Babylonian captivity forward, Israel was subservient to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Chronicler describes the situation and its causes as follows:

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, unceasingly sent them word through his messengers because he had compassion for his people and dwelling place. However, they continued to ridicule the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so fierce that there was no remedy. Therefore, the Lord God brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men with the sword in the sanctuary and spared neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the feeble. God gave them all into his power (2 Chronicles 36:15-17).

Following the Babylonian Conquest around 587 B.C., the Jewish people served seventy years in captivity until Cyrus the Great sent a contingent home. That is the event celebrated in Isaiah 40:1-3). Although a remnant returned home, they were still under the rule of the Medo-Persians, Greece, and Rome.

The End of Waiting

When Jesus came nearly 500 years later, they were under Roman rule and waiting. Then, a baby was suddenly born, and about 30 years later, the ministry of Jesus and his death and resurrection unfolded. Mark describes the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah with these words:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'”

Hence, John the Baptist appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the entire Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to him, and as they confessed their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River(Mark 1:1-5).

Of course, not everyone accepted John as the return of Elijah; after all, it did not happen in quite the way we might anticipate—perhaps descending from the clouds of heaven in a whirlwind (3 Kings 2:11-12) or riding a “Chariot of Fire” (2 Kings 6:8-23). John denied that he was the reincarnation of Elijah (John 1:21, 25). Jesus clarified the matter, stating that it was prophesied that Elijah must come first and, for those who have faith, Elijah had indeed returned in the person of John the Baptist, saying, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matthew 17:11-13).

As is often the case, people could not understand that John fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy spiritually, not literally. This is an error we must avoid in our day. It is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.” It is always a mistake to take too literally what God intends we take spiritually.


Jesus reminds us that we will have to wait for the coming of the Messiah and gives us instructions concerning what to do and how to behave while waiting. He wants us to use our time, talents, money, and energy to bring into existence some slight evidence of the kingdom of God within our time in human history. He tells us that we are like stewards whose principal has gone on a long trip, leaving us in charge. Because of the delay, we may doubt that he will come for an accounting, but he will (Matthew 25:14-30).

We are no different than the ancient Jews. We are called to wait for the return of Christ just like a small child waits for Christmas Day to arrive. Like a child, we may be impatient. Like a child, the delay will teach us patience. We need our annual Advent journey to remind us that waiting is part of the life of faith and ultimately good for the soul.