By Daniel G. Topalski
The Advent season starts with a prophetic reminder of the last days – the days to come. In that way, our preparations for Christmas are put in the proper perspective. As we look back to the accounts of Jesus’ birth, we always look forward to what is to come. We don’t just remember the past; we don’t just harbor in our hearts and minds the amazing works God did for humankind and each of us. We remember the future – what he will do for us. This is precisely the meaning of our constant repetition of the “Mystery of Faith” during the Eucharistic prayer, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” For Christians, the past and the future continually meet in the present, making us part of God’s great work of salvation for all the people and the entire creation.
The words of the prophet in Isaiah 2:1-4 are directed to Judah and Jerusalem, but they go far beyond the Jews and the city of peace. In the turbulent times of wars and threats, Isaiah speaks about a new and unknown reality – the universal reign of God over all nations, a reign characterized by righteousness and peace. Mount Zion is a symbol of God’s rule, and it derives its significance not because of its height but because the temple of YHWH is situated on it. That is why Zion has become a focal point of humankind. All nations will stream to God’s high mountain, moved by the desire for peace. The nations are viewed as flowing like water uphill to Mount Zion. So powerful is the pull of God’s presence that the natural flow of the waters is turned in the opposite direction. The principles of God’s universal reign are radically different from anything we know.
The nations will learn a new way of living from God himself. This knowledge is a gift of God through his law. We must remind ourselves that the law of God is not like modern-day laws. Torah is, above all, an instruction of the authentic way of righteousness and peace, a powerful expression of his transforming and life-giving grace. The new order of life is not developed out of the achievements of human progress. It is a new creation, the ultimate fulfillment of what God initiated through the incarnation of his Son.
Despite all the transgressions, errors, apostasies, and falls, the hope of salvation remains alive because there is permanence, unchanging permanence in God’s ways. This is the proper foundation for salvation. Not human perseverance, but God’s perseverance is the ground of our hope. It is not our righteousness but God’s righteousness that gives us the right to hope at all.
This perseverance will fulfill God’s goal for humans and all creation. Even amid extreme hardship and chaos, shattered illusions and dreams, amid the ruins of what we have built with hard work and hope, meaning is not lost because of the permanence of God’s ways.
In the last days, that which was sown in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ will bring forth its fruit: ” For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD” (Isaiah 66:23 NRSV).
Such is the new creation we await. But the world we live in is entirely different. We are constantly tempted to embrace the idea of unending human progress. Still, the endless human conflicts, wars, and suffering show us, again and again, the truth of what man has become in his rebellion against God. At the beginning of the 20th century, humanity was filled with optimism for a future in which bloodshed would cease, and nations would seek only a peaceful resolution of their contradictions. But the first half of the century scorched all hopes of peaceful coexistence. The first and second world wars showed that people could engage in extermination on an industrial scale. It was indeed unprecedented progress, but not of righteousness and peace, but of hatred and evil.
The end of communism and the fall of the Iron Curtain gave rise to new hopes and dreams for a peaceful future for humanity. We thought the military conflicts in Europe were over once and for all. The war in the former Yugoslavia and the current war in Ukraine have shown that Europe is also vulnerable and has difficulty resolving its conflicts peacefully. International law, international and European institutions, and military-political alliances are now unable to deal with the bloodshed in a European country, or for that matter anywhere else in the world.
Peace is a gift from God. The biblical understanding of peace does not equate with the absence of war and conflict. It goes far beyond this limited notion. The Hebrew word shalom means wholeness, completeness, health, safety, harmony, and prosperity. Shalom is complete well-being. That is why the nations in Isaiah 2:4 “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” This is not simply an end to every conflict but a complete dedication and involvement in the well-being of every aspect of human life.
Our God is the God of shalom, and his Son Jesus Christ is the Prince of peace. There is no other source of permanent peace available to us. Here and now, we are challenged to be peacemakers in our daily lives and to reflect the image of the Prince of peace in our relationships with others. On the night of Jesus’ birth, angels announced, “shalom on Earth, goodwill to humanity” (Luke 2:14). This shalom was brought to us through the Son of God, but its complete fulfillment is yet to come. We are living in this reality of productive tension between already and not yet. We must always remember the future and live in the perspective of a new creation characterized by permanent and unshakable shalom.
Remembering the future – this is the lesson we must learn in anticipation of Christmas. To remember what God has promised, what He has done in the past, what He continues to do today – all of this will be crowned in fullness and culminate in the age to come. To remember the future is also to cherish every moment of the present given to us so that we are not just spectators of what God is doing but co-workers with Him in our present.
Remembering the future is what the apostle means when he counsels the Ephesians to redeem the time (5:16), that is, to put everything that happens in its rightful place in God’s work of salvation, to give meaning to every moment because it is part of salvation history that will be crowned by the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness will reign.
Remembering the future is to understand that our present life is a preparation for God’s future, not a self-satisfaction, but a total commitment to a new way of life, a life of righteousness and peace.
The Rev. Dr. Daniel G. Topalski is the Presiding Elder of the Bulgaria Provisional Annual Conference of the Global Methodist Church. He resides in Varna, Bulgaria.