Today I wish to take up the question of why we need Advent. Several reasons:
First, we need Advent to put us into the proper frame of mind and spirit to celebrate Christmas. Do you really think that you can just go on living your life, business as usual, and then show up at your church on Christmas Eve (or whenever your church has their big Christmas service) and then–bam, you’re ready to celebrate Christmas?
Okay, so we don’t do it like that. The world celebrates Christmas by starting in August or September or whenever they start putting up Christmas decorations in the stores, and then just going nonstop–right through Halloween, right through Thanksgiving, right through December, and by the time we finally get to Christmas we are all Christmas-ed out and just don’t have anything left in the tank. And after Christmas we are left with nothing except a whopping pile of credit card bills for all the Christmas gifts we got, and a boatload of regret or whatever it is that we feel when we know that we missed something, that another Christmas has passed and all we have to show for it is this boatload of gifts and credit card bills. Now do you really want to go there? Hmmmm???
Didn’t think so.
What Advent does for us is put us in a mood of waiting and anticipation. We are not celebrating Christmas prematurely like the rest of the world, even though we still go to all the Christmas parties and do all the Christmas shopping and enjoy all the Christmas lights and decorations. Instead we are in a mood of waiting, reflecting and anticipating the coming of our long-promised savior Jesus Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas. Advent gives us space to step back from all the craziness of the world during this time of year and quiet our souls. As crazy as the world gets in the weeks and months leading up to Christmas, God knows we need that. And when Christmas comes, we are ready to start celebrating Christmas–not all Christmas-ed out and wondering what the hell happened, like the rest of the world.
But there is an even more basic reason why we need Advent. I touched upon it last week. It is this: We need Jesus.
We need Advent because we need Jesus.
There are two groups of people in the world: those who know they need a savior, and those who for whatever reason pretend to not know that they need a savior. Generally, it is the sinners (those whom society considers to be sinners, at any rate) who have no illusions about the fact that they need Jesus. For them, it is either Him or…nothing. What else is there?
Matthew knew all about this. When Jesus called him to be one of the apostles, he was a tax collector. As a matter of fact, he was right there in his booth, collecting taxes. Now, the Roman system of taxation…well, all you out there who bitch and moan about how bad we have it here in America, you need to sit down and shut up because you have no idea what bad is when it comes to taxation, until you have experienced the Roman system of taxation. What they did was this: They sold the privilege of collecting taxes in the provinces of their empire to the highest bidder. Their tax collectors were required to send a certain amount of money to Rome in the way of taxes, but over and above that they were free to collect whatever they wanted and keep what they did not send to Rome.
Now, tax collectors were not very well-liked. Tax collectors who came into Palestine from the outside generally did not fare too well. So Rome had an ingenious idea: Choose tax collectors from among the native people of Palestine. The Jews were hot about this: anyone who went over to collect taxes for Rome was considered to be a traitor to his own people. His own family would turn against him, and he would be virtually excluded from all community and religious life. As a matter of fact, the Jews had their own word for “tax collector”; rather than lump tax collectors in with all the other categories of sinners, they placed them in their own special category which was considered to be lower than the category of “sinners”, if that is possible.
Matthew knew about Jesus. He had seen, or perhaps heard about, Jesus getting into a dust-up with the Pharisees about forgiving sins and healing a paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8). And then this very same Jesus came by Matthew’s tax collecting booth and said “Follow me”. And Matthew was all over that like white on rice.
When Matthew went to write his Gospel, he started out by giving a genealogy of Jesus. He did this for two reasons: first, to show his primarily Jewish audience that Jesus was truly Jewish by tracing his lineage all the way back to Abraham, and second, to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah by tracing his lineage through David.
But along the way, Matthew did something else. At that time, genealogies were primarily produced by hired historians at the behest of great rulers to show how great they were by listing all the great people that they were descended from, while downplaying or leaving out altogether any ancestors who were not so great. Now if you are trying to establish Jesus’ credentials as the Messiah and the Son of God, then it would behoove you to list the best, the greatest, the holiest people you can, while glossing over anyone else who doesn’t exactly make that grade. Because if the Son of God is to come into the world without sin, then He has to come from people who are without sin. (The Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception came about largely because certain people in history had problems with the idea of a divine, sinless Son of God coming into the world as the product of sinful people.)
But Matthew did not see it that way. What Matthew saw was that Jesus came into the world for sinners, from sinners. Sinners were the reason why Jesus came to earth, and sinners were part of the story of how Jesus came to earth. And we are all sinners. So in his genealogy, Matthew went out of his way to highlight some of the most notorious, whacked-out sinners in all of Jewish history:
–Judah. Where to begin with this guy? Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, had twelve sons, one of whom was Joseph. We all know his story, we all know about the multicolored coat, we know how he got thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery in Egypt, where through a bizarre series of circumstances he became prime minister. Well, when the brothers threw Joseph into the pit, they were going to kill him at first. But Judah talked them out of it, saying that they should sell him off and at least get some money out of his misfortune.
Later Judah decided to settle down and have a family. Genesis 38 tells us how that worked out. Heads up: It’s a story that would be perfectly at home in backwoods Alabama. (Who knew that kind of juicy material was in there? You see, people, you really should read the Bible.)
And Matthew’s genealogy takes us right back to this sordid tale in all its ugliness and sordidness. Judah, the father, Perez, the son, and Tamar, the mother who was actually Judah’s [deleted by order of James Dobson]–they are all right there in Matthew’s genealogy, in all their sordid glory.
–Rahab. Now her story is decent enough. But do you have any idea what she did for a living? That’s right, she was a whore. As a matter of fact, that is part of her name. Except that the Biblical writers are not quite as blunt about it; they usually call her “Rahab the prostitute” or “Rahab the harlot”.
When Joshua crossed the Jordan and headed to Jericho, the first thing he did was send some spies into the city to scope it out. Now word got out that there were Israelite spies snooping around Jericho. The spies saw that things were getting a little dicey, so they ducked into the first house they could find in order to lay low and wait for the dicey-ness to cool off. This just happened to be Rahab’s place. Well, the spy rumors eventually reached the king of Jericho, and he sent his peeps out looking for them. They knocked on Rahab’s door (Fact of life: You just don’t go busting down the town whore’s door, because you never know who–or what–you will find inside. You always knock first) and instructed her to hand over the Israelite spies. She covered for them and helped them out of the city when the coast was clear, but not without first giving a startling confession of faith in God and asking protection for herself and her family from the soon-to-be-invading Israelite army.
This protection was granted. Now, the Israelite law had very strong views about what should happen to prostitutes. And Rahab was a Canaanite–another strike against her. Yet she was able to live in community with the Israelites. And she appears in Matthew’s genealogy.
–Ruth. She was actually a very good woman, and her story is a very inspirational, heartwarming story. As a matter of fact, she even gets her very own book of the Bible. But she was from Moab (not Moab, Utah). And the Israelites and Moabites were not exactly on the best of terms. Yet she is right there in Matthew’s genealogy.
–David and Bathsheba. We all know this story; no need to rehash it here. If you don’t, or if it is not fresh in your mind, go back to 2 Samuel 11 and 12 and read up. I promise you, this will keep you up at night.
In his genealogy, Matthew takes us right back to this story and plops us down right smack in the middle of David’s single greatest failure as king of Israel by including Bathsheba. But Matthew goes one better than this; he does not mention her by name. Instead he refers to her as the one who had been the wife of Uriah the Hittite. He beats us over the head with the fact that David fathered a son with someone else’s wife.
All of these people were direct ancestors of Jesus. And Matthew takes us back and plops us right down in the middle of all their stories and all their drama–because it is precisely for people such as these that Jesus came. And not only did Jesus come to this world for people such as these, he came to this world through people such as these.
These people were sinners. And here’s the thing: We are all sinners. We all need Jesus. If not for Him, then what else have we got? This is true whether we are willing to admit it to ourselves or not.
All those Christmas parties, Christmas carols, Christmas decorations, Christmas gifts, sky-high credit card bills–it’s all part of how the world celebrates Christmas. It makes the season go by in a whiz and a blur of busyness and craziness, and if you let it, it kind of makes you forget that you need Jesus. That we all need Jesus. And that is precisely why Jesus came to this world.
Advent does not let us forget. Advent does not let us lose ourselves in a mad whirl of busyness and craziness and call it celebrating Christmas. Advent forces us to step outside of all the craziness, to create some space and some quiet in our personal worlds. And in the space and in the quiet, we can be honest with ourselves, and see that we need a Savior.
Why do we need Advent? Because we need Jesus.