The question was asked in a London newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world?” After a host of predictable replies, the following was submitted and signed by the venerable G. K. Chesterton: “Dear Sirs, In reply to your question of what is wrong with the world: I am.”
If we are, as Chesterton so poignantly suggested, at the heart of the problem, it might also be the case that we are not the solution. Christianity has always maintained precisely this, as the line in the Nicene Creed summarizes so clearly regarding the coming of Christ, “for us and for our salvation” came to earth. As Advent moves toward its climax, it is good for us to ponder the indispensable truth that Christ’s coming cannot be untethered from the fact of human sin. Today’s texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:10-18.
The season of reflection and repentance is not an unending time of self-loathing. That would be the wrong conclusion to draw from all of the passages pointing to the ways in which we have sinned against God by our conscious and unconscious refusals of the cries of people in need, whether for sustenance, justice, mercy, or hope. Those failings are real, and we are culpable. But the word of hope is that the word of judgment is not final. Furthermore, the news is that no effort of our own will suffice to undo the damage we have done to self and others. The effort, no, the accomplishment of the Coming One, will take away our sins. Behold the Lamb of God.
There is much talk in theology circles today about the nature of the atonement. Teachers debate the best way to encapsulate the saving effect of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some hold fast to the penal substitution concept, some think this to be inadequate, some consider it to be entirely wrong-headed from the beginning. I have no desire to resolve such disputes. But I cannot wish to see a Christianity without a cross and an empty tomb. To read the Bible without these is dishonest. To hope for redemption without them is wishful thinking. To pretend that they do not matter is to remain caught in the messiness of humanity with no hope for anything better.
The incarnation (literally, the enfleshment, the entry of the divine Son of God into a human body) has many wide-ranging ramifications for human life. We often undervalue the human life of Jesus, the manner in which he portrays what our lives are intended to be, and the real meaning of his words about how to respond to the Father. We underestimate the power that His Spirit brings to truly transform people and relationships. And we do well to extend our grasp of how differently he was to orient our lives and longings. But we cannot go there without the central truth that His death was not an accident or a tragedy, or without acknowledging that for this he was sent into the world. It is His death, resurrection, and ascension that do away with sin once and for all, which make it possible for God to remember our lawless deeds no more.
For this he came.