Christians are defined by history. Christianity maintains that what Jesus did for us in the past defines both our present and our future. As Paul teaches, if there is no resurrection in the past, our faith is useless now and our future is hopeless. Of course, the same could be said concerning the incarnation, the crucifixion or the ascension. Without these events we would not be a people at all.
Because of this, the church has historically marked it’s yearly calendar by the major events of Christ’s life. We do this because these events from the ancient past make us who we are in the present. The history we recall on these special days is not just the history of Jesus but our history as well. So much so, Paul could tell the church, “you died, and your life now is hidden with Christ in God.” Teaching like this only makes sense if the personal history of Jesus has somehow enveloped and eclipsed our personal life story. Through faith, His birth, life, death and resurrection are now our life story and what formerly defined our identity, defines us no longer.
Therefore, at Providence we have made it a pattern to mark time accordingly. And, beginning this week we will be entering the season of Advent. Advent, which means arrival, is a time to consider the coming of the Lord. Before jumping immediately to celebrate the first coming of our Lord at Christmas, we remember the longing of God’s people as they waited for God to rescue them by sending the Messiah. This reminds us that we too are waiting for God to rescue us by sending the Messiah again. The traditional themes that accompany the season are repentance, renewal and patient waiting. We should use the time leading to Christmas as a time for reflection and rededication as we wait for the Lord to come in glory to put all things to rights. The texts used in the early weeks are often prophetic, and the characters involved are often confrontational; men like Isaiah, Malachi, John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Their message will show why the God-Man’s coming is necessary; humanity’s situation is so dire and their solutions so useless, that God himself must step into the world’s story.
Many in our time still celebrate the Advent season, but often times remove some of the shock intended. I can, at the time of writing, get an Advent calendar at Starbucks. Unfortunately, all the grittiness of Advent has been replaced with chocolates and inspirational sayings. Don’t misunderstand, chocolate is delightful, but Advent done well gives us Prophets in camel’s hair yelling in the wilderness, not chocolates and warm cocoa as we gather around a wreath stripped of meaning.
Advent offers, in direct confrontation with our cultural spirit, a different rhythm of life. We are already inundated with an endless stream of ads, catalogues and events that make time for reflection hard to come by. What was once a time for the church to slow down in order to take personal inventory has, in our culture, become a time harried to find what products the seller has in inventory so that we can do our part to increase the GDP. We all nod here and agree that this is not the reason for the season, but without a strategy to confront the flood of our culture’s consumerism, what will keep us from being swept away with it? Doing nothing won’t help!
So what do we do? Advent is a forced time-out for the soul amid the frenzy. Through focusing on the Scriptural themes mentioned above, Advent confronts areas of our own unbelief and exhorts us not to get caught off-guard. It exposes as silly the idea that man can fix himself, much less the world. Instead, Advent pushes us to acknowledge, in the weary but hope-filled resignation of faith, that, for life’s ultimate problems to be solved, God will have to step into history again.
People living in real brokenness, need real answers. The culture has offered us her holiday solutions for what ails us. And yet, even after all the presents are unwrapped and our debt has increased, I suspect most people still haven’t found what they are looking for. While I believe our Christmas celebration should be as joy filled and (children take note) gift filled as possible, the way we celebrate must differ in substance. People saved by free grace should, more than anyone, understand the profundity of gift giving. But to understand the hilarity of God’s gift, we must see how needy and underserving the recipients. In order to see how delightful God’s solution, we must see the gravity of the situation. Advent serves us in this way, by reminding us of the ongoing nature of our need and the hopelessness of man-made solutions to solve the dilemma so that, when God’s gift arrives on Christmas morning, we will be primed and ready to party.