Advent Week 1: Hope
Romans 12.1-2, NRSV
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Discerning God’s Will
When I read these two brief verses, jam-packed with ideas, I have the suspicion that first-century-first-generation Christians were asking questions that still haunt 21st century followers of the Jesus Way:
- “Where will following Jesus take me in this world?”
- “How much of my life is my own and how much belongs to God?”
- “What do I do with the thoughts, attitudes and actions that are not yet “conformed” to Jesus’ teachings?”
- “I believe in Jesus and have accepted his “good news” that “the kingdom of God has come near.” Now what?”
- “Bottom line: “What is God’s will for my life?””
No doubt St. Paul was already hearing such questions in a church not yet a half-century old. They remain with us two thousand years(!) later. Paul’s response is well worth considering on our way through Advent:
First, following Jesus is a wholistic endeavor; it encompasses mind and spirit, internal transformation and external action, personal conversion and communal responsibility. We are, all of us, offering ourselves to God and to each other, but such transformation is no Jesus vaccination. It is a lifelong response to struggle for and with God’s grace. Maya Angelou once said that when somebody said to her, “I’m a Christian!” She would respond, “Already?”
Second, St. Paul warns us to resist worldly conformity for spiritual transformation in Christ. We Baptists have often promoted “worldliness” as personal morality (which is why I never learned to dance!) and surely that is part of it. But such conformity can also involve a more subtle “worldliness” reflected in the accumulation of material goods, or the acceptance of political and cultural practices that marginalize or “other-ize” persons who reflect the wrong color, the wrong politics, the wrong sexuality, or the wrong theology. What if instead of debating the so-called “war on Christmas,” we chose to resist the temptation to spend money at shops and shopping malls and offered that money to agencies that feed the hungry, house the homeless, or bind up the broken? We don’t need bone tired clerks wishing us “Merry Christmas” at the temples of mammon anyway!
Third, St. Paul seems to suggest that discerning the “will of God” involves a continued openness to matters of mind and heart, celebration and struggle that can produce genuine transformation in our lives. God’s will for us may be less that we get with one divinely predetermined plan, than that our experience of God’s grace is so life-altering that we are prepared to respond to life when the way is clear and when life takes the inevitable unexpected turn. Neither life nor spiritual renewal are easy, which is why we look for, and long for, grace.
Prayer: Transform us, O God, as we confront life’s unpredictable moments, when we celebrate to high heaven, or must cry out in grief. Give us the courage to be changed by your ever-present, though often unrecognized grace. Change us at every level of our lives, even if it takes a lifetime. By your Spirit, confirm our Advent hope, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Action: This Advent, why not decide to reduce “holiday shopping” by a certain percentage and share those funds with a specific caregiving agency in church or community?
Bill Leonard is the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.