It has recently come to my attention that the American Family Association is calling for a boycott of Radio Shack. Why? Because they use the word “holiday” instead of “Christmas” in their advertising during this time of year. This sort of thing has become increasingly prevalent, so much so that I now yawn in the face of news items that another retailer is subject to the ire of the evangelical world for using “holiday” instead of “Christmas”.
I would venture to say that for a lot of you, this is the world you grew up in during the time leading up to Christmas. A world full of diatribes about how Christ has been “X-ed” out of Christmas and warnings about leaving Christ out of Christmas. Some of you may have heard warnings about the evils of Christmas celebrations involving alcohol. But almost all of you, I would imagine, heard warnings and rants about how the world just doesn’t have a clue anymore as to what Christmas is all about. (As if there was once a time when things were better.)
Yes, we evangelicals do tend to go negative this time of year. And perhaps deservedly so. The pagans have taken back their holiday with a vengeance, albeit with our St. Nicholas, our wise men and our music thrown into the mix. And on some level this probably does deserve a certain amount of “Bah! Humbug” from the Church. But before we go rushing in to kick the world out of our treasure closet and yell at them to lay off our decorations and our music, let’s take a moment to ask them what they found. Let’s teach them what it all means. Let’s connect the dots from Santa Claus to St. Nicholas, and on to the Incarnation. Recognize that knowing what Christmas is all about does not add ten points to your score. It just makes it that much more amazing.
With that in mind, let us move to a completely different world for the next four weeks.
Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.
Advent is a season of darkness. Not the special darkness of Lent which comes from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but the general darkness of a world where chaos reigns, a world waiting for the word that is Christ to speak light and order into it, a world broken and fallen and subjected to bondage because of sin and awaiting the coming of the Redeemer who was promised as early as Genesis 3:15.
Advent is a season of waiting. For two thousand years plus, the Israelites waited for their promised Messiah. For the next four weeks we wait with them, remembering their waiting as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ on Christmas Day, and waiting (for real) for Christ to come again at the end of the age, as he promised he would.
To guide our thinking as we prepare to enter the Advent season, I now direct you to one of the traditional readings for the first Sunday of Advent:
In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.
The story of Israel was a recurring cycle of creation, rebellion, exile, and restoration. This reached its climax when the Israelites were forcibly removed from their land and resettled in Babylon. There they suffered the loss of every trace and vestige of their identity as God’s people: kingdom, land, holy city, temple, priesthood, sacrifice, etc. Bereft of all these things, the words of God’s promises took on an entirely new significance for them. And though they eventually returned home to the Promised Land, it was a bittersweet homecoming for them as it became quickly clear that much of their hope would await future fulfillment. The conditions depicted in the above reading were most emphatically not in place:
–The people of the world were NOT streaming to Jerusalem to learn of the Lord and His ways.
–The nations were NOT submitting themselves to the law of the Lord.
–Injustice and oppression lived on with a vengeance throughout the world.
–Conflict and war raged on throughout the world, with no end in sight.
So the people of Israel waited. They cried out to God to come, to hear their cries, to take note of their misery, to bring about the long-promised new creation.
In Advent we join them. But we do so from a different vantage point. Christ has already come. Through his death on the cross he has broken the back of sin and death. Ultimate victory is certain, though the battle continues to be messy and there remains much work to be done. So we continue to lament, cry out, and persevere in hope as we await the final fulfillment of Christ’s promises to return at the end of the age.
To further guide our thinking as we enter the Advent season, I close with a traditional hymn for this time, which some of you may be familiar with, called “O Come, O Come, Immanuel”.
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.