Third Friday of Advent: But If Not...

By James R. Wilson

Advent Devotional | December 16, 2022

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth

LORD, I have heard of your fame;
  I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
Repeat them in our day,
  in our time make them known;
  in wrath remember mercy...

 Though the fig tree does not bud
  and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
  and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
  and no cattle in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
  I will be joyful in God my Savior.
 The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
  he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
  he enables me to tread on the heights.

 —Habakkuk 3:1-2, 17-19 (Read Habakkuk 3)

I remain very close to a number of my college friends more than 40 years after we graduated.

More than 20 years ago, we began spending the long Columbus Day weekend together at a house on the Jersey seashore. These weekends quickly became times of telling the same old tired stories, repeating hackneyed jokes, and enjoying a kind of mindless frivolity that many of us had not experienced since college.

College, for most of us, had been a time of coming to terms with what serious faith in Jesus Christ meant for our respective places in the world.

We all understood, to greater and lesser degrees, the vital role of Sunday worship and continuing in fellowship with the body of Christ. But we were also serious about the Lordship of Jesus over all of life and what that would look like in our various professions.

In short, we graduated from college convinced we were going to employ our faith and the insights we had garnered into the various areas of public life and culture, sharpen our capacity for critique, and become a force to be reckoned with—for the Kingdom, of course.

What we encountered was something that might generically be described as “adult life.”

Within our group of eight—plus spouses and the children who joined us along the way—we experienced something less than the triumphant march through an unsuspecting culture that we had once anticipated. What we did experience was shocking and deflating—divorce, serious health issues, severe unemployment or underemployment, alcohol abuse, children absolutely off the rails (and in prison), and careers that never really happened—or looked dramatically different from what we expected.

But what of the annual Columbus Day gatherings?

They still happen every year, but over time the tone has changed. Yes, there are still jokes and tired stories and raucous laughter, but most of the triumphalism has been replaced with discussions of Kingdom life as “now but not yet.”

In retrospect, we can say that more than a little hubris has been trimmed away.

In its place, there is a sense of expectation of what is to come—an anticipation, something Peter would call a “living hope” (I Peter 1:3) that unfinished business will in fact be finished, that every valley will be filled in and the crooked will be made straight, that the poor will inherit the Kingdom and justice will roll down like many waters.

We wouldn’t criticize you if you said that we sound a bit defeatist, that the accumulated weight of life’s experiences has squashed our Christian confidence. But we think that something better—something deeper than defeat—is actually at work.

We have talked amongst ourselves many times about how some popular manifestations of the Gospel have no space for anything that is not successful and happy and buoyant. We have discussed how this flies in the face of so much of the biblical narrative—like the account of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego living in a place of exile.

There is no space in the circles of buoyant Christianity for the confession of the young princes of Israel, in the face of the foreign king’s threat to annihilate them, that God could rescue them, but even if he did not…they would not bow down to the bizarre caricature of a god offered them by the dominant culture.

We find hope alongside these princes—and alongside Habakkuk. Because despite all of our collective shortcomings and disappointments, our annual Columbus Day gatherings are not “woe is us” sessions. Rather, they are celebrations of the goodness of the living God and a confession before all “principalities and powers” that when the crops have failed and there is no livestock in the stalls, we will nonetheless rejoice in the Lord.

We trust, even in the midst of our Advent waiting, that we will in fact be able to “tread on the heights.” In God’s time.

—James R. Wilson is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Jim was a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania during the first year of the CCO's existence and was deeply involved in the ministry for all four years of college. He has continued to be involved, speaking on campus for various CCO staff, mentoring law students, and speaking at Jubilee and various CCO fundraising events.