Advent Week 4: We All Need Advent

advent4We are now in the final week of the Advent season.  This is what we do around here during the Advent season:  Pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  For the past couple of weeks we have been coming around this question:  Who needs Advent?  The short answer is that we all do.

Advent takes us back to before the first coming of Christ and takes us through the story of the people of God all the way up to the first coming of Christ, with a heavy emphasis on the Messianic prophecies which pointed to his coming.  This enables us to get the whole story in mind, so that when Christmas comes we can celebrate it with the whole story in view.  Because if you take the events depicted in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke all by themselves, what you have is a fantastic, unbelievable, perhaps even nonsensical story.  But put it in its proper context within the larger story of God’s people, and it becomes a remarkable yet believable story.

As noted early on, the Christmas story began over two thousand years prior to the first Christmas, with God’s promise to Abraham that he and his wife would have a child and through them all nations in the world would be blessed.  That story stretched on for two thousand years through the history of God’s people Israel and it continues today, even though the thread is at times difficult to trace and even appears to be completely lost.

And at just the right time, when all hope was lost, when everyone had long since given up and no one was expecting it, a young couple in backwoods Palestine, the stinking armpit of the Roman Empire, turned up pregnant.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about:  His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.  Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.”

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.  And he gave him the name Jesus.  (Matthew 1:18-25)

When Matthew speaks of “the prophet”, he is referring to a prophecy which appears early on in the book of Isaiah (7:14).  This came at a troubled time in Israel’s history.  Israel and Judah divided after the reign of Solomon, and they were not exactly on the best of terms thereafter.  Ahaz, king of Judah, was in trouble because Aram and Israel, his neighbors to the north, had made an alliance and were coming after Jerusalem.  To face this threat, Ahaz contemplated an alliance with Egypt.  But Isaiah counseled him to do no such thing and trust God instead.  God offered to give Ahaz a sign to show he could be trusted.  When Ahaz refused, God said, “All right, fine.  I’ll give you a sign anyway.  The virgin will be with child.”

Matthew, looking back on this long-forgotten prophecy several centuries later, saw it as pointing to Jesus.  But why?  Why introduce the notion of a virgin birth into the mix?  The Hebrew word which was translated “virgin” is a word which could refer to any young woman, regardless of whether she has ever been intimate with a man.  And the young woman who gave birth back in Isaiah’s day was not a virgin.  The word which we recognize as “virgin” did not enter the mix until the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek.  Plus, the whole idea of an actual virgin birth was foreign to Jewish thinking.  This was the stuff of Greek mythology, where the gods were always getting with human women and giving birth to these semi-divine people like Hercules and Helen of Troy.  As for the Jews, they were expecting their Messiah to be of the line of David, born of a descendant of David, not born of a virgin.  So adding the virgin birth to the mix would certainly not have helped the story and would probably have hurt it.  Matthew had nothing to gain and much to lose by introducing the element of the virgin birth.  Unless it actually happened.

So here we are, with Mary and Joseph pledged to be married, and Mary unexpectedly pregnant.  What to do with her?  In prior generations she would have been burned alive or perhaps stoned.  They weren’t doing that anymore, because under Roman rule it was illegal for Jews to impose the death penalty.  Plus, Mary was going on about how this child was fathered by the Holy Spirit, and you can’t stone a crazy woman.  Still, the Jewish law provided for certain things to be done.  Joseph wanted to uphold the law, but he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, especially since she was a crazy woman, so he intended to just divorce her quietly and be done with it.

Then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, reassuring him that everything was OK and the child was truly from the Holy Spirit, as Mary said.  Now the name we know as Jesus actually appears in the Jewish scriptures as “Yeshua” or Joshua.  Just as the first Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land and overthrew the Canaanites and all the other nations of that time, so the coming Messiah was expected to be a military leader and deliverer in that same vein, throwing off Israel’s oppressors and reestablishing the kingdom of Israel in the Promised Land.  So when the angel said that Jesus would save his people from their sins, one can imagine that Joseph did a double-take.  You see, it was Rome that needed to be saved from their sins, and Israel needed to be saved from Rome.

Yet there it was.  And when an angel tells it to you, you don’t question him.  You just do whatever he says.  And that is what Joseph did.

Now we tend to hear “save his people from their sins” and mentally replace “save” with “forgive”.  But if we do that, we are shortchanging ourselves and missing out on an awful lot of what Jesus and Christmas are all about.  Paul, one of the most prominent early Christians, said that “the wages of sin is death”.  Meaning, every time you sin, something dies.  Forgiveness in and of itself is not enough to bring it back to life.  What’s more, our very notion of sin is askew in that we associate it with problematic behavior that can be fixed with some simple behavior modification.  Instead, sin is a condition in which the very human spirit is curved in on itself.  We see the evidence of this all around us every day.  Forgiveness alone is not enough to restore a human soul/spirit that is curved in on itself and unable to see anything past its own needs/wishes/desires.  For that, we need a savior, a deliverer.  We need nothing less than God Himself, come to earth to take on human flesh, whose coming we will celebrate in just a few days.

So after all this we now come all the way back around to the question:  Who needs Advent?  And the answer:  We all need Advent.

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Advent Week 3: God Needs Advent

advent3We are currently in the middle of the Advent season.  This is what we do around here during the Advent season:  Pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  For the past couple of weeks we have been coming around this question:  Who needs Advent?  The short answer is that we all do.

Advent takes us back to a time before the first coming of Christ and takes us through the story of the people of God all the way up to the first coming of Christ, with a heavy emphasis on the Messianic prophecies which pointed to his coming.  This enables us to get the whole story in mind, so that when Christmas comes we can celebrate it with the whole story in view.  Because if you start with the Christmas story as depicted in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, what you have is a fantastic, unbelievable, perhaps even nonsensical story.  But put it in its proper context within the larger story of God’s people, and it becomes a remarkable story.

As noted last week, the Christmas story does not begin with a couple trying to figure out how they got pregnant, it begins with a couple trying to figure out if they were ever going to get pregnant.  It begins not with a couple worrying about where they would have their baby, but with a couple worrying about if they would have a baby at all.  It begins with a promise made to Abraham which must have seemed incredible to him when he first heard it, and it stretches through two thousand years of history to the coming of Christ and beyond to this day, even though the thread can be very difficult to trace and at times appears to be completely lost.

But might I suggest that not only does the world need Advent, God needs Advent as well.  But why?  We go to Paul, to a letter written by him to a group of Christians living in the vicinity of Rome (just a couple of decades after Christ’s death, which is remarkable in and of itself).  Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, but after an encounter with the risen Christ he began to rethink everything about the Jewish scriptures he had known from early on in his life, in light of what he had seen in the risen Christ.  Writing to these Christians living near Rome, he says:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  (Romans 5:6-8)

This was a unique time in history.  The Roman Empire was expanding.  They had their own Great Commission–to colonize and Romanize all the known world.  They brought peace to many troubled regions of the world that had not known peace for a long time before or since, and wherever they went they left behind a vast network of infrastructure, roads and seaports.  Meanwhile the Jewish temple system had morphed into a clown show.  It was overrun with corruption and love of money, and those who were charged with representing God on earth cared nothing for the people whom God was concerned about.  This was a special moment when God could come to earth and gain the undivided attention of humanity.

But why?  Why did God have to come to earth and take on human flesh?  The answer is that what God wanted to do was personal and relational.  He wanted to reestablish a connection with lost and wayward humanity, and to do that he had to come in person.  Messages, letters, sacred texts, prophets, miracles alone would not get it done.

And why did Jesus have to die?  Why couldn’t Jesus just say “You’re all forgiven” and let it go at that?  The answer is that no one would have believed him.  We can see that quite clearly on the occasions when he did say “Your sins are forgiven”.  People got offended.  No one can forgive sins (except where they are directly concerned) except God alone, so it was as if Jesus was placing himself on a level with God alone, and this was shocking.

But there is a more basic reason:  God is the author of life.  To dishonor the source of life is an offense which deserves the forfeiture of life.  That is worthy of pondering.  Yet Christ died in our place, demonstrating both the magnitude of our ingratitude and the magnitude of God’s love.

So when the set time had come…

When the Roman Empire was expanding Godzilla-style and the Jewish temple system had morphed into a cartoon…

When everyone had given up hope and no one was even looking for it…

A young couple turned up pregnant.

Advent Week 2: The World Needs Advent

advent2We are currently in the middle of the Advent season.  This is what we do around here during the Advent season:  Pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

Last week we asked the question which we will be coming around for the rest of the season:  Who needs Advent?  The short answer is that we all do.

As noted in the Greg Goebel piece I linked earlier this week, Advent takes us back in time to before the first coming of Christ and takes us through the whole story of the people of God all the way up to the coming of Christ, so that when it comes time to celebrate Christmas we can do so with the whole story in mind.

You see, the Christmas story does not begin where everybody thinks it does.  It does not begin with a couple trying to figure out how they got pregnant, but with a couple trying to figure out if they were ever going to get pregnant.  It does not begin with a couple trying to figure out where they would have their baby, but with a couple who was certain they would never have a baby.  It begins with a promise–a promise which made no sense whatsoever to the one who received it and for which there was no way it could possibly come true in the cultural context in which it was given.

This promise was given to a man named Abram, who would later be known as Abraham, who lived some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.  His story is found in the book of Genesis, starting in chapter 12:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

When Abraham first heard this promise he had to have found it remarkably incoherent and nonsensical.  First of all, he had to have been thinking, “Great nation?  I would be happy just to be a great grandfather.”  In his day and age security came from family and tribe, much more so than it does today.  For him, leaving the only country and people he had ever known would have constituted a much more radical break than we can even begin to imagine in our day and age.  Finally, he lived in a day and age in which nations (and peoples) did not bless each other, they plundered each other and enslaved each other.  The idea that one day all nations and peoples on earth would be blessed, let alone through him, must surely have seemed unfathomable.  Yet there it was.

As we know, Abraham did not live to see any of what was promised come true, though he did have a son.  And that son had another son.  And that son had twelve sons.  And they ultimately grew into a nation, though they were a slave nation living in Egypt.  Anyone living in those days who heard this promise would have thought, “Great nation?  Hah!!!!!”  But in time, God raised up Moses as a deliverer.  The Israelites conquered Canaan and finally entered into the land that was their promised inheritance.  From there it was a rocky and messy ride as they grew from a loose federation of tribal states into a cohesive nation-state.  David, the warrior king, arose and in his time all of Israel’s enemies were subdued and their territory was enlarged to nearly the maximum of what was promised.  Solomon, the builder-king, was next, and his grandiose building projects raised the profile of Israel to heights heretofore unknown.  Kings and queens and leaders from all around the world were coming to see the splendor and hear Solomon’s wisdom.  Surely it must have seemed to anyone living then that everything God had promised was coming true.

But there were cracks in the foundation.  In Moses’ final charge to the Israelites before his death, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, he foresaw that the Israelites would want a king and gave clear instructions on what sort of person that king was to be.  Solomon was the opposite of that.  His wealth led his heart astray while his grandiose building projects took a heavy toll on the people, and within days of his death the nation was divided, never to be reunited.

There were two kingdoms, a northern kingdom which retained the name Israel, and a southern kingdom which took the name Judah, after its preeminent tribe.  Judah, the southern kingdom, is where Jerusalem and the temple were located.  The northern kingdom had nothing but bad kings, and within a couple of centuries they were wiped out by the Assyrians.  The southern kingdom, Judah, fared only slightly better; they had a few good kings in the mix and managed to hang on for a couple of centuries longer until the Babylonians came and it was exile for seventy years.

The Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the surviving Israelites to return home and rebuild, though they would never again catch even a whiff of independence.  For the next several centuries they lived in a state of in-their-homeland-but-might-as-well-still-be-in-exile exile.  They recognized that it was their own sin, both individually and collectively in failing to keep the law given to them by Moses, that had gotten them into this state, and as a nation they buckled down and said “By God we’re going to finally get this Torah thing right even if it kills us!!!!!”  Somewhere along the line the Pharisees emerged as the vanguard of this effort.  The hope was that if Israel finally purified itself and got the Torah thing right, then the Messiah would come and deliver Israel from all her enemies so that God’s promises would be fulfilled.

Yet, as noted above, they would never again catch even a whiff of independence.  After the Persians came the Greeks, and after the Greeks came the Romans, and on an especially excruciating day in Israel’s history a Roman general named Pompey showed up at Jerusalem with his army, rode his horse right up onto the Temple mount, and entered the Temple.  Despite the Jewish priests’ insistence that he do no such thing–access to the Temple was forbidden for Gentiles except the outer courts–he went right in and went straight to the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple where the presence of God was believed to dwell.  No one was allowed to enter except the high priest, and that only once a year, with rope tied around his ankle so that in the event he was struck dead by the Lord his body could be dragged out without anyone else having to go in there to retrieve it.  The final indignity came just minutes later when Pompey emerged from the Holy of Holies, alive, unharmed, and unimpressed.

If you were living in that time and you remembered the promise which God made to Abraham, well, at least God got part of it right.  He had made Israel into a nation.  But what a nation.  Great nation?  Hah.  Rome is a great nation.  Greece was a great nation.  But Israel?  Not so much.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through you?  All peoples on earth have not even heard of us.  Funny, that.

Yet God was working behind the scenes, bringing this incredible story to pass on a stage as large as the whole world itself.  The story stretched all the way back to the time of Abraham and it continues even to this day, even though the thread is very difficult to see and at times appears to be lost altogether.  The story reaches its unexpected climax in Jesus Christ, whose coming we will celebrate in just a couple of weeks.

Greg Goebel: The War on Advent

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Greg Goebel entitled “The War on Advent“.  Goebel blogs at Anglican Pastor.

Every year at around this time of year, it seems that all of evangelicalism gets geeked up about the supposed War on Christmas.  The real war at this time of year, says Goebel, is not whether retail store clerks say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, but a crisis of misplaced priorities in our churches and homes.  In our observance of the Christmas season we jump right over Advent and go straight to the Christmas carols and decorations.  And though Advent is making something of a comeback in evangelicalism lately, in many places the emphasis is all wrong as those supposed Advent devotionals that are all over the place at Family and Lifeway are really Christmas devotionals in disguise.

Advent is a journey back in time to before the first coming of Christ.  Its themes are waiting and repentance, with a heavy focus on the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah and the ministry of John the Baptist.  Advent takes us through the whole story of the people of God all the way up to the birth of Christ, so that when Christmas comes we have the whole story in mind.

It is human nature to want to lick all the icing off the cake before the birthday party even starts, to skip all the hard work of fasting and preparation, reflection and repentance, and go straight for the carols, decorations, gifts, eggnog and pumpkin-spice lattes.  But the season of Advent, as the Church has historically observed it, puts us in a mood of waiting and anticipation.  We do not celebrate 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.  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.

Read:  The War on Advent by Greg Goebel