Fourth Week of Advent: What Is Advent All About?

[If you wish to catch up on my previous Advent posts, here is week one, here is week two, and here is week three.]

On this, the fourth and final week of Advent, we are going to do things a little differently.  Today we are going to trot out a series of readings from the Old Testament and the Gospels which illustrate what Advent is all about, namely God’s redemptive plan for humanity which culminates in the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, which we will celebrate in just a few more days.

We will start with a reading from the Gospel of John which gets right to the heart of the matter:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.  (John 1:1-5)

Why has the darkness not understood it?  To answer this, let us hop into the time machine and go back.  Way back.  Ten thousand years back or thereabouts, if you believe those who are of a more literalist bent.  There is significant debate about this, but the upshot is that we’re going way back.  All the way back.  As in Adam and Eve.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me–she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

…To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return from the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”  (Genesis 3:8-19)

Here is the root of all the trouble. God created man in His image to have fellowship with Him, but man turned away from God in disobedience.  But God was not done with man; this was only the beginning.  When God tells the serpent how “he (the woman’s offspring) will crush your head”, he is already hinting at Christ, the promised Redeemer.

Fast-forward for a while.  God chooses a man by the name of Abram (who would later change his name to Abraham), and promises that he will become the father of a great nation that will be God’s people and will ultimately be a blessing to the entire world.  But Abraham and his wife remain childless for a very long time.  Finally, after much struggle and conflict, they give birth to a boy named Isaac.  But when Isaac is about twelve years old, God instructs Abraham to build an altar and sacrifice him in an appointed spot.  Abraham does this, but just as he is bringing down the knife to kill Isaac, an angel stops him.  Abraham sees a ram caught in a nearby thicket, and sacrifices the ram instead.  We pick up as follows:

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.  Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”  (Genesis 22:15-18)

Now fast-forward about 1,300 years.  Abraham’s descendents have grown (but not without some serious struggles) into a great and mighty nation, the nation of Israel.  Eventually this nation split into two kingdoms, called Israel and Judah.  A series of wicked kings led Israel into ever-increasing apostasy, which culminated in the Assyrians’ invasion and destruction of Israel in 722 BC.  Judah did not fare too much better; they hung on until 586 BC when the Babylonians took care of them.

Isaiah was one of the most well-known Old Testament prophets.  He prophesied in Israel and Judah during the final decades prior to Israel’s fall, and in Judah for several decades after that.  Many of his prophecies pointed to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Here is a sampling:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned….

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:2-7)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him–
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord–
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:1-9)

Fast-forward another seven hundred years.  The Babylonians conquered Judah, but then the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the people of Judah to return home.  The Greeks conquered the Persians, then the Romans conquered the Greeks.  By this time, Judah is a Roman-occupied province.  A young couple about to be married is living out in the hinterlands, when an angel comes to visit.  The Gospel of Luke picks up the story:

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will have no end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God….”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her.  (Luke 1:26-38)

We now skip ahead to the night that Jesus was born:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world….  And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.  (Luke 2:1-20)

After about a year or two or thereabouts, some wise men from the east arrived in Bethlehem to visit Jesus.  We go to Matthew for this:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ “

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child.  As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.  (Matthew 2:1-12)

And after all that, we have now come full circle.  I leave you with this reading from the Gospel of John which ties together everything in this story that we have looked at:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world,
and though the world was made through him,
the world did not recognize him.
He came to that which was his own,
but his own did not receive him.
Yet to all who received him,
to those who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God–
children born not of natural descent,
nor of human decision or a husband’s will,
but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-14)

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