Advent Reminds Us to Choose Mercy

Growing up in the church, my knowledge and understanding of the Christmas story was shaped in great part by the annual children’s program. It was a necessary tradition, loved by parents and grandparents, and valued by pastors for its attendance boosting capabilities. Personally, I despised it. As a shy, introverted kid, being trotted up on a platform and forced to spout some memorized lines to a church full of people was my private Nightmare Before Christmas. With all that aside, there were some things I learned through those December Sunday mornings, and also some things I didn’t. Joseph fell into the latter category. For some undeserved reason, Joseph received little consideration or attention in our retelling of the story. Mary always had a significant, dramatic role, and there were plenty of songs about angels and shepherds. Even the innkeeper usually had an obligatory line, turning away the expecting couple. Joseph, on the other hand, was just the awkward kid in a bathrobe, standing quietly by the manger like some extra in a movie.

He deserves better treatment, and we desperately need to learn what he so well teaches. When Joseph first becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy, for all he knew he was an innocent victim, betrayed by the unfaithfulness of one legally bound to be his wife. As such, he had rights. According to the law, he was bound to divorce the unfaithful spouse, and he could choose to make her and her family pay in the process. He had every right to drag her through a public trial, to impound her dowry, to recover any bride price that was paid. He had that right, and most would say it’s what she deserved.

Joseph was different than most, though. We’re told that because he was a righteous man, he chose to divorce her quietly. He gave up his right to compensation; he turned away from the path of shaming her publicly. Rather than demand his own rights or seek to make someone pay for his hurt, Joseph chose mercy. Contrary to those who said she deserved to suffer, he opted for grace.

Just a surface glance at the state of our world this Advent season tells us that mercy is a quality in short supply. People commonly demand their own rights, while willing denying the rights of others. Hurt and anger seem to overflow into the desire for vengeance, the need to make someone pay. We assume that our hurt justifies any hurt we may cause others. We hate those who hate us; those who fail us are judged and cut off. Our world spins on the axis of getting what you deserve. The notion of responding to all of the hurt, brokenness, failure, and hatred in our world with a spirit of mercy seems “other-worldly.”

Perhaps it seems that way because it is that way. Mercy is not the natural response of this world, but it is the spirit of the kingdom that is coming. The mercy we see in Joseph became fully embodied in the person of Jesus. He laid down his life, not demanding his rights or protecting his own position. Rather than leave us to what we deserve, he paid the price for us. This is mercy; it is the way of Jesus and the spirit of his kingdom. As his followers, you and I are called to live as “other-world” people, bearing witness to another kingdom, another way. When others call for vengeance and hatred, we choose mercy.

May this Advent season remind us that no matter what the world around us might say or what others might do, we follow a King who tells us, “Blessed are the merciful.”

Advent Reminds Us That We Are In Conflict

The Word became flesh and lived among us. This is what we remember in these weeks of Advent and the hope we will celebrate on Christmas. Any sense of reflection will, no doubt, leave us in awe once again of the indescribable, unimaginable humility of Jesus, the One who did not cling to His position, but emptied Himself, taking the very form of a human being. God came to us, not in the trappings of power or position, but as baby born to poor, working-class parents, from a backwater town, and part of an oppressed people. The opening statement of this grand story is a declaration of humility, sacrifice, and self-emptying love.

This is how the kingdom of God comes. The opening scene was not just for show; it was not some divine bait-and-switch where Jesus comes in one way, then abandons it for the expected path of force and power. No – the picture remains the same, all the way to a cross. This is the path of God’s kingdom, revealed in the person of Jesus; it is a kingdom that overcomes by the way of humble sacrifice and perfect love.

And from the beginning of the story, we see the unavoidable conflict that arises with kingdoms of another nature. Herod was king, and took no joy in the announcement of the true king’s birth. In fear, paranoia, and the desperate attempt to secure his own position, he lashes out with violent force, slaughtering the innocent. Sadly, the story does not surprise us. Herod was not the first or the last to secure his position with violence, vengeance, and hatred. History has shown us that this is how kingdoms of the world and earthly powers work. Selfishness, greed, fear, vengeance, violence, and hatred – the traits of brokenness that stand in contrast to the sacrificial love of One born in a stable.

Two kingdoms, both of a radically different character. It is a conflict that has revealed itself to every generation since, and continues to play out before us.

There is a strange and unsettled climate in our world this Advent. Episodes of inexcusable violence and evil have destroyed innocent lives, leaving us all shaken. Fear and insecurity dominate the landscape, fueling the fires of suspicion and hatred. Our public discourse, filled with panic and anger, does more to deepen the divide than to find genuine resolution. The people and powers of this world, engulfed in fear and driven by self-preservation, reach again for the tools of hatred and vengeance.

In these volatile times, Advent reminds us that we are a part of a different kingdom. We walk the path marked out for us by Jesus; we overcome by the way of the cross, the way of love. Yes, the concerns and dangers around us are all too real. There are complex and difficult issues to navigate. Balancing justice, mercy, and the need to protect the innocent requires intense deliberation and difficult conversations. Even as Christians, we will undoubtedly have our disagreements as to the appropriate course of action.  But in the middle of this complexity and mess, we cannot afford to forget who we are.

If we are not careful, we may find ourselves being formed to the image of the wrong kingdom. Fear, shock, and anger, if given control, will push us over a line the followers of Christ should not cross. Rather than simply being concerned about protecting the innocent in a dangerous world, we are drawn into hatred for those we fear. Not satisfied with reasonable defense, we seek vengeance. No longer heartbroken over the violence and evil of our fallen world, we begin to celebrate a culture of violence. Casting a wide net of judgment, we dehumanize those different from us, forgetting they are people Jesus loves and for whom He died.

The world can, indeed, be a scary place. I confess I don’t have the answers for the challenges before us, and I honestly respect the differences of opinion that exist. Of greater concern than our specific philosophical or political conclusions, however, is the spirit we convey. In all of the fear, debate, and confusion, we must not lose our unique identity as the people of God. Perhaps, from the perspective of His kingdom, the greatest threat we face this Advent season is the danger of looking more like Herod’s kingdom than the Prince of Peace we celebrate.