We 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.