Across the Charles River, in Cambridge, the famous psychology professor Steven Pinker thinks that the world is getting better. In a recent interview he says that, thanks to the Enlightenment and especially to science, life on earth is improving. He acknowledges that human beings “tend to backslide into irrationality,” but all in all, placing his hope in science and human reason, he thinks the data show that we’re improving. [1] Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon and great philanthropist, thought that, too; after reading Darwin on evolution, he embraced a motto as his personal creed, “All is well because all grows better”—and Carnegie spoke confidently about man’s “march to perfection.” [2]

Some of you perhaps know or even studied with Professor Pinker. He is a far more sophisticated thinker than Andrew Carnegie. I’ve paid a lot of attention to reports on Pinker’s work. I realize that I’m generalizing and oversimplifying, but still, I’d say that reliance on scientific data—combined with faith in human potential—is likely to go hand in hand with an optimistic view of the human future. The Bible and human nature are best understood, however, not by scientific investigation but by those who teach and read literature.  The greatest literary novelists show us the human heart from the inside: how it deceives us, goes its own irrational way, draws us into situations we did not intend—and they show us how little real control we have over our more destructive impulses. The Bible itself shows us real human beings, some of the most unforgettable in all world literature, who thought things and said things and did things that they did not rationally intend. Professor Pinker is not naïve about this, but still and all, he really believes that human progress is unstoppable. He seems to think that science and technology can solve our problems if we can only be rational, high-minded people—people, presumably, like himself.

Today is the first Sunday of the Advent season. There is a lot of misunderstanding about Advent. The Episcopal Church does Advent better than any other tradition (I’m definitely bragging here), but even Episcopalians are slipping into the cultural mindset which tells us that we need to start Christmas way early, because this is “the most wonderful time of the year” and the place to be is on the “city sidewalks, meeting smile after smile” as we listen to “silver bells”—and, of course, spend a lot of money. On the city sidewalks of New York that I frequent, there are not many smiling people, mostly people in a great hurry to accomplish their goals as they speed past increasing numbers of homeless beggars. It’s difficult to withstand the allure of the commercial Christmas, but the Advent season, properly understood, is designed to strengthen us for life in the real world where there are malignant forces actively working against human wellbeing and the divine purposes of God.

The Bible is a story, not a scientific document nor a collection of spiritual principles. It tells us how we came to be who we are in this world, how we fractured the image of God in ourselves by our rebellion, and how our Creator came in his own Person to transfigure us into the likeness of the Son who became incarnate in our human flesh. It tells us of the powers of Sin and Death and their hold on us. The biblical story is rigorously unsentimental. It doesn’t offer optimism. It doesn’t offer “positive thinking.” It looks deeply into human misery, human folly, human pain, and plain old human disappointment. I like what the writer Lawrence Morrow said about the century of the World Wars and genocide: instead of a growing Enlightenment it seems more like an Endarkenment. [3]

This is a world in which two world leaders, President Putin and the Saudi Crown Prince, both of them murderers, gleefully high-fived each other on camera two days ago at the Group of 20 meeting. This is a world in which no one seems to know what to do about the catastrophic famine encroaching upon Yemen. This is a world in which the promise of freedom and democracy in Poland and Hungary is shifting before the eyes of the world into oppression and autocracy. In 1989, at the time of the triumph of the Solidarity movement in Poland, one public intellectual wrote rapturously, “somewhere an angel has opened its wings.” [4]  Where is that angel now?

This is a world in which our very best intentions turn against us. Yesterday I read this in The Wall Street Journal:

Washington once thought that it could help to bring a wave of liberalization and democracy to the post-9/11 Middle East by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The US has now abandoned such dreams, largely  standing aside and watching—under both Obama and Trump—as Syria’s dictator has murdered hundreds of thousands of his country’s citizens. [5]

Did you come to this worship service to get depressed? Is that what the preacher is doing up here? Advent always begins in the dark.

But there is a “but.”

I’d like to tell you a little bit about the book of the prophet Zechariah. I doubt if many of you know much about this little book in the Old Testament, but the first reading today is from Zechariah. Long ago I heard a respected, experienced preacher say that when you are preparing to preach from a biblical text, you first need to read the whole book that the text comes from.  I took that advice this past week and read the book of Zechariah for the first time in quite a while. I had almost forgotten what a wonderful book it is! But we definitely need some help to understand it.

Everything in the Bible can be understood as pre-Exile and post-Exile. [6] Before the Babylonians came and conquered the Hebrew nation, laid waste the Temple, and carried its people far away into exile in a pagan land, the promises of God seemed secure. The land of milk and honey was in the possession of the people the Lord had chosen to live and flourish there. But God’s people did not live according to the will of God. They became indifferent to the poor, they perverted the system of justice, they turned to foreign gods. God’s judgment, long delayed by God’s mercy, descended upon them in the form of the Babylonian hordes, and they were taken away to the land where those foreign gods reigned supreme. Or so it seemed. The challenge to the supremacy, even the very existence of the God of Israel was overwhelming. The entire Hebrew project seemed to be at an end.

This historical situation is illustrated in the first chapters of Zechariah. The prophet looks for a king who will restore the fortunes of Israel, but this is an earthly, human king he’s prophesying about (Zerubbabel). This is typical of the pre-exile biblical mentality. The promises of God will take place from within the progress of history. That’s the first eight chapters, which may have been taken from the words of the actual prophet Zechariah. After chapter 8, though, we are in the post-exilic world. The passage we read today is from the second half of the book. The chapters in this section move us into a different world view which we call apocalyptic. Don’t be put off by this word; it doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in our culture. It’s actually a biblical word. In Greek the word apocalypse means revelation[7]

After the Exile, biblical theology changes. Before the exile, the thinkers of Israel looked to history for their hopes for the future. They had a lot of data that strengthened their conviction about the faithfulness of God in the history of their people.  They were confident, secure, flexing their muscles, certain of their standing, heedless of the warnings of the pre-exilic prophets like Jeremiah. After the Exile, the prophets began to write in a different strain. This second line of development in biblical thought is what we look to in the season of Advent.

After the Exile, the thinkers of Israel gave up on history as a confident way to find hope for the future of humanity. The great theological movement that Advent represents was the turn to the future of God. The early part of Zechariah looks for historical vindication, but it does not come. After this, the whole Bible moves in the direction of the future, the coming Day of the Lord. This is the reason (did you know this?) that the Christian Bible is arranged differently from the Hebrew Bible. The books are exactly the same, but in the Christian Old Testament the Wisdom literature comes in the middle and the prophets come at the end, looking ahead to the intervention of God from beyond and outside of history. Here we begin to hear the prophecies of a Messiah who will come “with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13-14). The very last words of the Old Testament point us ahead, not to data about human possibility, but to the promises of God in the midst of human impossibility. When human hope and human potential have failed, the prophet tells us of cosmic happenings, with mountains moving and valleys filling up (“every valley shall be exalted, and mountains and hills made low”—Isaiah 40:4) , so that every “red line” “in the sand” of demarcation is obliterated.

In that final movement of God for the salvation of the world, “ there is neither cold nor frost, and there shall be continuous day, for at evening time there shall be light” (Zechariah 14:7). I love cemeteries where the gravestones have biblical verses on them. In one of the cemeteries where our family members were buried in the 19th century, there is a tombstone with the inscription, “At evening time there shall be light.” I used to think that was from some sentimental Victorian poem. What a thunderclap to realize that it is from the apocalyptic passage in Zechariah where the new creation from God comes into being! It’s not about the death of an elderly person slipping away into the clouds. It’s about the redemption of the entire human story and the created cosmos, transformed by the mighty intervention of God. And those redeemed by God “will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

And all of this, these majestic prophecies about the end of human history, comes into being in a way that would have been humanly inconceivable: the ordinary birth of an infant in the most lowly of conditions, received by most of the world by utter indifference, by some of the world by murderous rage (Herod), but by an infinitesimal few with awe that heaven has come to earth. God to earth, not the other way around. His movement, his purpose, his promise fulfilled. God’s work, not ours. We could not, and we cannot, accomplish this with all our learning and all our achievements. Only God can do this.

The post-exilic writing of the Bible is always a threat to those who think well of human potential. Our default position since the day of Adam and Eve is to think that we can pull this project off by ourselves (“with God’s help,” of course [8])…. Advent, however, begins in the dark where human prospects and human hopes are confounded. As Isaiah writes, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

At this point the same question always arises: “So what is there for us to do? If God is going to do it, what role is there for us to play?” This is the perpetual complaint of human nature. Again, we want the credit. We push back, perpetually, at the idea of the grace of God being free, gratuitous, and complete in itself without reference to our contributions. If that is indeed the gospel that lies at the heart of the miracle of Christmas, what then should we be doing in the Advent darkness? What can we contribute to the coming of the light?

Here is another story from the recent news. Three years to the day after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 and wounded nearly 500, the city gathered for a somber memorial ceremony.  Two American newspaper reporters collected testimonies from those who sought to process their rage and grief through the arts. The article focuses on one project in particular, a documentary film by two brothers named Jules and Gédéon Naudet—born in France, living in New York. These brothers, as it happens, were filming in lower Manhattan on September 11 and were the only people to capture clear video footage of the first jet striking the North Tower.  Their documentary about 9/11 is a classic, shown streaming in a museum in New York. Their new documentary is called “November 13: Attack on Paris.” The brothers were interviewed about their experiences making the Paris documentary. Jules Naudet said that they wanted to do a different film from the one about 9/11. The brothers explained that instead of focusing on the bombing, the carnage, the horror, and the destruction, they sought out the survivors. This time, they said, we wanted to recreate the effects of the attacks “by being in the heads” of the people they interviewed. They were surprised by what they found. In their words you’ll see the connection to the Advent message and to our human response as we live in faith and in hope:

Here is what Gédéon Naudet said:

 None of the survivors talk about hatred, revenge and killing. You have a choice: You go the dark way or you go the way with [the] light. [9]

And Jesus said,

There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.

(Luke 21:25:28; see also Daniel 7:13-14)


[1] Karen Weintraub, “Steven Pinker Thinks the Future Is Bright,” New York Times, 11/20/18.

[2] These quotations are sourced and expanded in my book The Crucifixion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 198-200.

[3] Lance Morrow, Evil: An Investigation (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 213.

[4] I have to find this quotation (possibly Timothy Garton Ash?)

[5] Karen Elliott House, “Rethinking Saudi Arabia,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1-2, 2018.

[6] An oversimplification for homiletical purposes, but there is an essential theological point to be made.

[7] The Book of Revelation is also, properly,  called The Apocalypse.

[8] This phrase is in the baptismal service of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The revisers took the active verb to be away from God! The earlier version reads, “I will, God being my helper”—which is much stronger.

[9] Alissa J. Rubin and Elian Peltier, “After 2015 Paris Attacks, Processing Grief Through Art,”  New York Times, 11/14/18.

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