Advent: A Prison Story

Billy had a heart attack.

And he died.

The bible study at the prison this last Monday night was sober and sad. Billy was an inmate and popular. An excellent guitar player, Billy would often play for the prison worship services.

On Saturday Bill started having trouble in his cell. A female guard called for help. When the gurney came they placed Billy on it. The guard stayed with Billy as they raced him to the medical unit. Billy was transported to the local hospital.

But his heart stopped and he died.

The next day some of the men in the study, dear friends of Billy, thanked that female guard for what she did. She began to cry and said, "I wish I could have done more." And the prisoners offered her comfort. She did all she could. More than they had expected.

All this was shared at the start of the study. The mood was heavy. And then it was my time to get up and share my lesson. We were starting on the book of Job.

But I began by talking about Advent.

I started by contrasting Advent with Christmas. Advent, I explained, is sitting in the experience of exile. Waiting, hoping God will act in the future. We are slaves in Egypt. We are exiles in Babylon. We are sad friends mourning the death of Billy. Where is God? We are waiting. That, I said, is Advent. Learning to be patient, learning to wait on God.

We sang O Come, O Come Emanuel and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.

And then we opened our bibles to the book of Job.

Up until this point in the bible, I explained, the story has been governed by a theology of retribution, the "blessings and curses" of Moses (Deut. 11). Do good and stay faithful to God and you will be blessed. Turn to wickedness and idolatry and you will get punishment and exile.

The entry into the Promised Land. Judges followed by kings. Warnings upon warnings about the blessings and curses. Stay faithful. Do not bow to the false gods.

Deaf ears. Hard hearts. The Kingdom divides.

Israel descends into idolatry. Exile.

Judah follows. Exile.

The logic of retribution holds. The righteous are blessed. Sinners are punished. That's how God has set up the world. Bad things happen to bad people.

And then we get to the book of Job.

And an entire theological trajectory--starting in Deuteronomy and traced through 2 Kings--gets knocked off course. Good people are always blessed? Not so fast, says the book of Job.

Job is a man of integrity. And yet he suffers. Chapter after chapter Job's friends argue for the theology of retribution. Job is suffering, so he must have sinned. That's the way the world works. Moses said so.

Job disagrees. He's done nothing wrong. And yet God has cursed him. There is no lawful relationship here between virtue and suffering. Bad things happen to good people. Billy died on Saturday.

So Job waits on God. Waiting for vindication. Waiting for a chance to plead his case. Job wants answers. Waiting.

Like us in the wake of Billy's death.

You know what, I said to the men, as I reflect on it Job is a pretty good book for Advent. We talk about "the patience of Job."

Patience. Waiting on God. That's Job. That's Advent.

That's us.

But in the waiting is also expectation, longing, and hope.

The men share more from their conversation with the female guard who stayed with Billy until they took him away in the ambulance. Billy blessed her, she says through tears.

She shares Billy's last words, shared as they rushed toward the waiting ambulance.

"I am," he tells her, "a man of God."

He tells her this, over and over.

--Advent meditation from 2013

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