We 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.