The Genesis of Christmas, part 3: how to vindicate your life (Third Sunday of Advent, 2022)
“For the Germans…I think that remorse is pointless…I feel sure that they won’t earn the forgiveness they could get form the world just by being obligingly repentant. They will earn it rather by total, sincere commitment to a future…”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, “For the Germans,” article originally published in Verger (June, 1947)
For [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God
— Hebrews 11:10
Why will your life matter? Most of our days are spent avoiding this question. Devolving into the vacated entertainment of our screens, or an over-inflated view of the cultural arts, or an obsession with the numbing sensation of professional sports, many of us opt for a kind of utilitarian existentialism, Epicureanism, nihilism—or a mixture of all three. It works to not be so philosophical about things. Ignorance is (a kind of) bliss. We are a speck of dust, we conclude; life is meant to be “enjoyed” (whatever that means for that day) and our goal might be to “love” (whatever that means for that day) all the people around us (that is, when it is both convenient and reciprocated). This might be as much as we ever think about “purpose.”
But there is a question beneath the question “why will your life matter?” that, I am convinced, haunts our subconscious and directs our bizarre decision-making. And that is the question of vindication: not just “why will my life matter,” but “why was it necessary that I be born?” Why did I exist instead of not existing? Why something instead of nothing? The best philosophical minds have taken their stab at this and, as reported by the brilliant Jim Holt, their answers are less than satisfying and mostly inconclusive. Why do we exist instead of not? The answer comes back in a few questions: Who knows? Who cares?
A stark difference between the nauseating version of “Christmastime” in the West and Advent (the Church’s season leading to Christmas Day) is actually around this very question: why am I existing instead of not existing? Christmastime is your time to vindicate your existence through gift-giving: material items and precious time. “Spend time with those you love,” we say, and give gifts! This will make you feel like you matter. It will for a bit.
But in my pastoral ministry I meet people every year who do not have either possessions or people. Their life is, for one reason or another, empty of both trusting relationships and material means. Even those with a few family members or a little money can’t engage with America’s Holiday Season. Yes, they buy stuff for their cousins and daughters, but they cannot help but during this time think about all the loss: the divorce, the death, the disease that stole someone from the table. Christmastime is forced happiness and consumer-generated meaning-making that ignores the terrors that this life so often brings. Christmas in America is about “holiday cheer,” but life is usually not.
Advent is strangely good news as it operates from inside the Christian story, not the American one. “Advent begins in the dark,” Fleming Rutledge writes. It begins with a people called “Israel,” their name literally translates to “the people who wrestle with God.” And boy have they wrestled. Left for dead, nearly obliterated from the planet, enslaved, exiled, oppressed, and finally, left silent for 400 years after a prophet named Malachi told them a savior would come, they exist as the ones through whom we know The Living God of Christmas. Without “the people who walk in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2), we pagan Gentiles have no way of seeing the star in the badlands outside of Bethlehem.
The characters in the Nativity story like Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and Mary have extremely significant lives today. They lived lives of meaning. But the fact that we know their names is ridiculous. These were lowly people: Mary was an unwed pregnant refugee, John the Baptist was a bizarre religious zealot on the outskirts of town, and Elizabeth was a simple Israelite married to a priest. Why do we know their names and why do their lives have the meaning they possess today? What does Advent share with us about the reason we might all be here instead of not?
Christianity approaches the question of existence from the opposite end as philosophy. The Great Minds start with us: what is inside of a human being that can tell us the big answers to the big questions? What meaning can be made from our minds and the things attached to it (symbols, stories, etc.)? But the Biblical narrative starts without human beings in Genesis, without creation even, but with the uncreated planet as a “formless void” as “darkness” covers the “face of the deep.” Into this pre-existent and lifeless space, an Uncreated One speaks the world into its form, shaping the nature of time, light, and reality. In other words, Genesis 1 is not so much interested in “the purpose of your life” as it is interested in the purposes of the God that begins life: his creative, sustaining, and expansive power over all created reality.
When human beings come on the scene, it is strictly their attachment (relationship?) to this Creator that makes them who they are: they bear his image (Genesis 1:26–28), are given delegated authority that is his (Genesis 1:29–30), and are given his “spirit” or “breath” to become something English translators have called a “living creature” (Genesis 2:6). The creation narrative gives us insight into the meaning of life: it cannot be found without God. Human life is inextricably linked to divine life. Life’s “meaning,” according to Scripture, can only be discovered through a submission to a particular ordering of God before self; Creator before creation.
The “main characters” in the rest of Genesis live strangely insignificant, foolish, and even abhorrent lives. They are mostly vagrants with barren wives and moderate generational wealth. Many of them are liars, thieves, adulterers, even con artists. Nearly all of them are bad parents. And yet, they are, without question, “chosen.” God speaks and attaches himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and will call himself (nearly 20 times) their God — the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He promises to them land, property, and a whole lot of children, which is the ancient equivalent to a generational fortune.
And yet: one of the weirder parts of Genesis (and there are many!) is that the book ends with none of these patriarchs getting what God promised them. He promised them a lot. We skip over this, but God both promises that their descendants and they will get a physical inheritance (Genesis 13:15, 15:7, 17:8, 26:3, 35:12).
But all of them die with just a little bit more than what they were born with and certainly not the entirety of what God said he would grant them. They have some kids and usually more livestock, but they definitely do not have land. In fact, Genesis ends with the whole family precisely not in the land God promised, but in Egypt: a pre-existing kingdom that is not for sale or for the taking.
Genesis ends with a question: did all these people waste their lives? What “meaning” did Abraham’s life have? He spent nearly all of it following a God who did not give him what he said he would give him. Along the way, he nearly ruined his family through intermarriage and polygamous practices that divided his lineage. He obeyed God and didn’t obey God and there does not seem to be much to show for it. And yet, the writer of this story focused tons of time on him. And then, after his life, we cannot stop hearing about him. After he dies, he is mentioned over 150 times in Scripture, nearly all positive references to his faith, trust, and, yes, meaning-filled existence. Abraham is counted as the “father of faith,” the one who went first and might matter most. What happened?
What happened to Abraham is the same thing that happened to John the Baptist. He, too, lived an insignificant life in the wilderness (Matthew 3:1). He really had very little of what we today called “self-awareness.” Eating bugs and dressing in strange outfits (Mark 1:6), when people asked who he was he denied being the Messiah, Elijah, or even “the Prophet.” Instead, he quotes Isaiah and says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:20–23). He didn’t know who he was apart from his role in Another’s story. Without the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, John the Baptist did not have a “purpose.” John could only understand who he was when he placed his life in the context of Christ’s.
John the Baptist’s fate was worse than Abraham’s but similar in that he dies without any vindication. John is beheaded after being imprisoned by the Roman occupying power (Matthew 14:1–12). He dies maybe a year before Jesus. And still, he is spoken about a lot after his death, mostly by Jesus himself, who seems to see John’s role as crucial to the story the church was about to participate in after Christ’s ascension (Matthew 17:9–13, Acts 1:5).
How can God make insignificant lives significant? How can he take such paltry people with little self-understanding and recast their trivial existence into something of such enormous importance? Why do we know more about John the Baptist than many ancient Roman Emperors? And if God did this with both Abraham and John the Baptist, is it possible for us as well?
The very last lines of Genesis give us a clue. Here, Joseph’s story is concluding and he is (like a good biblical patriarch), talking about his own death. “I am about to die,” he begins, “but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” The writer continues: “Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here’” (Genesis 50:24–25). Why is Joseph asking for his brothers to bring his skeleton out of Egypt and into the promise land?
This is because, as James Bejon explored in a recent Twitter thread, each of the Genesis patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) lived such “future-oriented lives” that were fiercely committed to the promise of God. They (especially Joseph) all came to conclude that evil would not thwart the outworking of God’s good (Genesis 50:20) and not even death could stop Yahweh from advancing his promise to bless every nation in the world (Genesis 12:1–4). There was something in Joseph that knew his life — and the lives of his insignificant ancestors — would be vindicated. “Carry up my bones from here,” Joseph says…but why? Because he is certain one days those bones will live again.
When Jesus taught and practiced ministry, he lived with the assumptive reality that Abraham was not, in one sense, dead. He tells a crowd that Abraham, along with Isaac and Jacob, are waiting at a table for believing Gentiles to eat with them (Matthew 8:10–12). He also tells a short story about a man who goes to “Abraham’s side” directly after he “dies” (Luke 16:22–30). Later, he says in an argument about marriage and the resurrection: “have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22: 31–32). Jesus Christ clearly believed Abraham’s corpse may be somewhere, but he — as a being — is living somewhere else.
Both Abraham, along with the rest of the Genesis patriarchs, and John the Baptist, all die without having received what was promised to them. Their lives make no sense have seemingly have an ambiguous purpose at the time of their bodily corruption.
Abraham does not see the land or the offspring. Right before John is beheaded, he remains confused about Jesus and concerned that he is not who he has proclaimed him to be (Matthew 11:2–3). John dies as Jesus’ identity is still confusing to most people. But today we see both of these characters radically differently than they saw themselves. Their lives have been vindicated. They are not the insignificant people they were upon their death. I can’t imagine John died thinking he was “successful” as he was in a Roman prison without any possessions or freedom and with the near certainty that the man he dedicated his life to was being hunted down to be killed. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, says about his life: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning” (Genesis 47:9). And yet we regard him as one of the “big three” when discussing Genesis. What happened to their lives after their death?
Hebrews can land the plane for us. The writer is celebrating the faith of these insignificant people when, in the middle of a paragraph about Abraham, he says something true of all those who follow the Living God: “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Joseph had his bones brought out of Egypt because he knew what his grandfather Abraham knew: another kingdom was coming that would vindicate his life and even resurrect it entirely. Abraham lived in constant trust of God’s future promise. John the Baptist said he wasn’t even worthy to tie Jesus’ shoes (Luke 3:16). The curious thing about each of these characters is their ability to look ahead to something beyond their life and their death.
All of them were looking ahead with profound orientation towards not just “the future,” but “a future,” where God would raise the dead and unite all things unto himself. To employ theological terms, lived radically eschatologically-driven lives. To bring this full circle back to the Genesis creation account, they found their meaning by imagining a world without them and believing the world was involved in a different story that did not depend on them.
Because of this orientation, and because of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, all of these men’s lives are radically reinterpreted in the light of his Messianic ministry. Set Abraham outside of the story of God in Scripture and he is a dead beduin. See John the Baptist without Jesus and he is a raving rural would-be prophet. But place them inside the grand biblical narrative and their lives overflow with significance.
Light a match. Its beauty is brief and its heat insignificant. Now throw that match into a stack of kindling in a fire pit and suddenly its whole “purpose” is reinterpreted. One voice crying out in the wilderness is interesting at best and annoying at worst, but what if that voice is quoting Isaiah? What if that speaker is not “finding his voice” but finding someone else’s? What happens when someone lives like Abraham, completely bored by “writing their own story” and instead joins another one? What happens when the story of your life becomes not the main role, but a small part in a larger production? To be an extra in Saving Private Ryan might provide greater significance to an actor’s life than the self-made web series that no one views. Ringo Starr is a wonderful drummer on his own, but when set inside the context of The Beatles, it becomes transcendent. What do you do with yourself when you’re involved in something that’s scale you could never dream to match? Suddenly you make different decisions — harder ones probably — and suddenly the surrounding culture deems you a fool. You should have found your own voice, written your own story, developed your own project, they say. But perhaps it is right at this point — the point of utter foolishness — where you could become something the world cannot fathom? No, not a celebrity, not an influencer, but an anathema, an irritant…what if you would become a saint?
The night before Martin Luther King Jr. died, he told a crowd he may not get to the mountain top with them. Much of his personal correspondence near the end found a man dark with depression. All that work, and for what? He died at a time when the dream of a black president seemed stupid to many Americans. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote letters home from a Nazi internment camp confused as to what mattered about his life before he was assassinated in the gallows. Both of these men now are seen as saints, but why? How did their lives develop meaning?
King and Bonhoeffer, along with Abraham and John the Baptist, lived future-oriented lives that could not be understood in the present because they can only be understood in a future we have not yet encountered. Only inside the context of the resurrection of all things do these lives make sense. It is at this point and place — when Christ returns — that we will see those “foolish martyrs” to have lived the wisest lives. In a final divine action, God Almighty will show us the millions of Kings and Bonhoeffer’s who have lived but we never knew because we did what made sense at the time: we disregarded them. These saints threw themselves in to something much larger and more significant than themselves. Our lives may not matter now, and we may struggle with existential questions our whole life — about why we exist, what will end up counting, etc.
But better than the question, “how can my life matter now?” is the question, “how can my life matter in 10,000 years?” The only shot is to attach ourselves to a future we have been told about for centuries, where a God who we have heard about but have not fully known will recreate the world. We are, then, in some ways back at Genesis 1:1, where the Spirit was hovering over the un-created world. Instead, now, the Spirit hovers over a de-created world, where our sin and selfishness has brought a beautiful world into decay. Knowing what God did in that original state of waste, imagine what he might do now. He may make this old land into something that our minds cannot comprehend. I think he will.
Then, and only then, when we throw our life in to his, will our existence be vindicated. Why? Because it will be raised and transformed. Our efforts and entire life will not be seen “in the light of the day” but “in the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Think about this: what difference does my life make when I place it “in the light of the knowledge…of Christ?” And how might it change?
Just as Christ’s first coming vindicated the lives of those who lived in Him prior to his earthly ministry (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and John), so too will our lives be made more glorious by his return in the New Age. Today, our lives look ordinary, inconsistent, even foolish. Advent alerts us to a possible redirection: if we direct all of who we are towards Christ — his once and future coming — then our conventional lives will one day be transformed into anything but that. They will be brilliant, exceptional, and finally, holy.