Advent with Barth: The Gracious Judgment of the Nativity (A Brief Reflection on The Gracious Judgment of the Nativity)

Third Sunday in Advent, December 16, 2018

Most of us recoil at the notion of God’s judgment, not because we fear being judged by God, but because we love being the judge.

Though not always maliciously or even consciously, we fall prey to the temptation to be judge, to relentlessly compare ourselves to others, to make judgements about “us” and “them,” to mutter hostile things under our breath about that person in traffic, to be “right” rather than kind, and to justify ourselves in the sight of ourselves, whatever it takes. And we do this because to be judge is to be God. And since Eden, that’s all we’ve ever wanted. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the serpent said to Eve.  We fear God’s judgment only insofar as we fear not being able to be the judge ourselves. It is the cry of Babel, to make a name for ourselves, to be in control.

In Christ, God has broken into this death cycle and said “No!” But this “no” bears with it an even greater “Yes!” The sign of this is the Virgin Mary. As Barth comments: Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connection for divine grace, lies under its judgement. Yet it becomes, not by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of the judgement passed upon man, and to that extent the sign of divine grace. For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work. Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only – and even that because God has presented him with Himself – in his readiness for God. So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man. (p. 192)

By the birth of Christ to a virgin, God declares to all humanity that there is no effort, willfulness, or exertion by which we can secure a relationship with God or procure our salvation. We do not find God; we are found by God. And through our union to the one born of the Virgin, God finds us to be in the right.  God’s gracious judgment is this: you don’t have to be in control! You don’t have to make a name for yourself! You don’t have to be the judge! I already love you.

Luther once said, “To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.”  This is so hard for me to grasp, and the evidence of this is how much time I continue to spend justifying myself before others, attempting to create my own peace, trying to forgive myself without accepting that God has already forgiven me. The birth of our Lord to the Virgin Mary reminds me that all God asks of me is readiness, availability, and openness to possibility. 

Or as Andrew Peterson sings:

“You don’t have to work so hard / You can rest easy / You don’t have to prove yourself / You’re already mine / You don’t have to hide your heart / I already love you / I hold it in mine / So you can rest easy Do not be afraid / Nothing, nothing in the world / Can come between us now.”

Our Advent-ing God

Rev. Adam S. Borneman is a dear friend to Homewood CPC and currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife Jessica and daughters Maggie and Hanna. He will be contributing to the HCPC blog regularly beginning with this post.


If there’s one time of year that reminds us that God is the primary agent, subject, actor, or any other term that highlights God’s initiative over ours, its Advent. We didn’t “figure out” God from our lived experience. Our lived experiences only reveal to us our limited capacity for knowing God and the necessity for God to move toward us if we are to know him at all. “Ex nobis, pro nobis, in Christo,” (Outside of us, for us, in Christ) Martin Luther once put it.

And so, the eternal triune God, who is above, beyond, and outside of us, graciously creates us and perennially moves toward us in love. With this in mind, we begin to see more clearly that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t the only “advent.” It is a – or perhaps the – climactic moment in the life of Triune God who is always advent-ing toward each of us and toward the whole world in ways that are mysterious, beautiful, and often difficult to grasp. The season of Advent is simply an opportunity for us to focus on how God reveals to us that he is, in a sense, always coming to us.

God has always been showing up on his own initiative in “fleshy” ways: at creation taming the waters, walking in the garden of Eden, as three men at Abraham’s door, as Jacob’s wrestling partner, an angel on several occasions, and as a “Word” that “comes” to various patriarchs, kings, and prophets. And may we not overlook Israel’s designation as “the Son of God,” called to embody and give witness to God’s grace, justice, and steadfast love before the nations. These are all very “fleshy” movements of God toward the world in love. Whether these instances mark appearances of the second person of the Trinity in some form is a conversation for another day, but we would do well to keep them in mind was we reflect on God coming to us.

It’s easy during Advent for us to slide into the temptation of thinking “I need to get closer to God this Advent.” My advice would be to stop trying so hard. Sure, pick up that advent devotional, light a wreath, sing hymns. Yes and Amen. I’m doing the same. But these are only ways of acknowledging that God has always been moving toward us and that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God has come become supremely, shockingly, and intimately close. Mary initially thought it impossible, and I think we still do. God’s movements toward us often happen in ways we don’t anticipate or expect, but always in ways that are ultimately for our good and the good of the whole world. What’s more it’s all God’s initiative, not ours. And that will always be the case. So take a deep breath, know that the Son of God is drawing close, and rest in the grace of God’s advent.