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. 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.