An Advent-shaped Faith

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This is a re-post of my inaugural piece on the Sojourners website.  You can visit the piece here.

Well, I’ve finally given in.  It’s November 19th and I’ve decided to start listening to Christmas music.  While this might not seem radical in a culture that starts decorating stores before Halloween, for me this is a big deal.  You see, I’m one of those stubborn holdouts.  In the past I have refused to decorate my house, listen to holiday tunes, or do anything Christmas related before Thanksgiving.  Why?  Because I like having the holidays separated.  I want to be able to enjoy Halloween.  I want to savor Thanksgiving.  And I don’t want to be rushed into Christmas!!!

But over the years my wife has softened me in this regard, largely because of the sheer, childlike joy she takes in the Advent season.  She loves decorating, listening to Christmas music, singing hymns, and reading the Bible stories to our kids.  Her passion for this holiday is infectious.  So here I am listening to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night”, and the “Ave Maria.”  And I’m loving every minute of it.

And as music does, it got me thinking.  On November 30th the Church worldwide will celebrate the first Sunday of Advent.  Over the course of the following weeks we will spend time reflecting on one of the most momentous events in history:  The God of the Universe being born in a lowly stable in a Middle Eastern city under the oppressive might of the Roman Empire.  The Incarnation is one of the greatest, most beautiful mysteries in the universe as God on High came to dwell with His people and bring light and redemption to a world trapped in darkness and Sin. Advent is the season in which we take some time to meditate and reflect upon this beautiful gift. 

The high liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent have always held a special place in my heart because of their emphasis on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  But Advent has special significance because it, unlike any other season, most accurately expresses the now-not-yet feeling of the Kingdom of God.  It highlights the fact that we are waiting.  We’re waiting for the return of God, for the day when He will come and restore all things. 

Many of our Advent hymns capture this beautifully, especially “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Before the birth of Christ, God’s people lived in a time of waiting.  The space between the Old and New Testaments, between Malachi and Matthew, cover a span of over four hundred years.  That was four hundred years without a word from God, without a prophet.  It was four hundred years of one invasion after another as one conqueror overtook another.  And the people began to wonder, “When will YHWH come?  When will He send His Promised One?”

And then, announced by shepherds and angels, and greeted by Magi from the East, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  The Promised One had come!  The Kingdom of God was at hand!  But not quite.  He lived, he died, he rose again….but we’re still waiting.  We live between the two great Christ events of history, between His first coming and His second.  We live in the in-between time as we await the return of the King and the day when God will come again to dwell with His people, to wipe away every tear, and to finally and for all eternity make everything new (Rev. 21).

This is why Advent is so important.  Its a time of waiting…but waiting with expectation.  It is a time of hope in the midst of uncertainty.  Its symbols, songs, and rituals reflect the cries of our hearts for the return of the Redeemer.  And this is vital for us to remember as the Church today.  It is easy, in a world torn by war, injustice, wickedness, and evil, to become discouraged.  To lose heart.  To wonder, “Has God forgotten?  Where is He?  When will He fulfill His promises?”  Advent reminds us that we do not wait in vain, for God is at work bringing about His purposes in the world.

When we sing hymns like “Silent Night” we are reminded that though God seems silent, He is still at work.  He is quietly, subtly moving in His world.  When faced with the difficulties and pain of living in a world marked by Sin, we are reminded that the darkness does not have the last word, for God’s “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

This is what it means to have an Advent-shaped faith.  It is a reminder that though we live in a time of waiting, we cling to the God who fulfills his promises at the right time.  This is what gives us courage and endurance.  It’s what enables us to continue to fight the good fight, to continue speaking the Gospel to those who seem far from God, to work for justice in a world of lawlessness, to step once more into the mission field for the “fields are ripe for the harvest” (John 4:35).  We are an Advent people, for we know the God who has come and who will come again, and that is a hope that will not disappoint.

So sing the songs.  Put up the decorations.  Light the candles.  Tell the stories.  And may you have a blessed Advent as we await Emmanuel, God with Us.  Amen.

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