The Advent by Dan Schmidt

[This article first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Next-Wave. You can browse the other articles from that issue here: http://www.the-next-wave.info/archives/issue96/index.cfm.html ] The standard celebration of Advent revolves around four themes: hope, love, joy and peace. These are addressed in different ways, as there is ample room in the...

[This article first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Next-Wave. You can browse the other articles from that issue here: http://www.the-next-wave.info/archives/issue96/index.cfm.html ]

The standard celebration of Advent revolves around four themes: hope, love, joy and peace. These are addressed in different ways, as there is ample room in the Christmas story for examining each one from different angles. The point with Advent is to slow the pace and ponder, to meditate on the One who came, and why, and what it means for us.

Hope

The NativityIt is prophetic work to establish hope. Prophets denounce, predict, assist—but they always and must like heralds in the square announce hope. Prophets have an array of tools for doing this. A surprising technique is literature, specifically apocalyptic literature, where fantastic images, cosmic disturbances, numeric schemes and epic battles give us accounts (today we might call them ‘graphic novels’) of what is sure to take place.

Interpreters have gone to these apocalyptic sections and treated them as allegory: this is that, and so on. But there is more to these stories, as apocalyptic lit is a way of telling a specific story, namely: the world has set up a most impressive way of life which oppresses or woos us—but, the world, for all its sounds and furies, will not prevail, since God—the true God—is on the move and about to emerge triumphant. To boil it down, apocalyptic insists that there is something strong in which the beleaguered may hope, and something better with which the distracted can be satisfied. In using apocalyptic (as well as other forms), the prophets say: look here.

Hope, they tell us, is as real as a doorknob, but more lively. The only problem is that we cannot see this hope; we see instead the way of the world in all its glory or decay (depending on one’s perspective). So the prophets offer us new eyes—eyes of faith.

We have known this, known that the life of faith is one typically bereft of sight. But we rise against this; we want so desperately to see. This is why so many of us settle for the tangible, for a house at the beach now rather than a room in the Christ’s big house later. We have vision problems, and refuse glasses held out by the prophets.

Without vision, people perish, we are told—from a text casually and commonly applied to business (or business-like) applications. This text becomes the linchpin for developing ‘vision statements’ for churches, small groups, families and individuals, encouraging them all to express what they’d like to occur—what they can envision. But read the statement more literally, as if it were said by a prophet, and refers to what a prophet does (remember, if this helps, that in the old days—Samuel’s days—prophets were first called ‘seers’). Using this lens, to mix a metaphor, it sounds different. It sounds like we need what prophets see.

Which is hope.

And having seen this, and then calling us to look, these prophets call us to a life of faith—because (here it gets a little strange once more), the hope which is so sure is still invisible to our human eyes. Thankfully, though, it is not imperceptible to hearts tuned by the Spirit toward the way of Jesus. Such hearts see quite well—and seeing, they welcome hope.

So this is our program, while we live for a time among people—in a world—hostile or indifferent to the one true God: we affirm that the hope He promises is every bit as real as linoleum, and even more durable. And even when we cannot see it as such, we hold that it is true, good, and worthy of our pursuit and longing. This takes faith, but then what of merit doesn’t? It takes faith to believe my wife loves me, that the sun will rise, that the food I eat won’t kill me. But I think so little of these things, in large part because so far, they’ve all worked out pretty well. There’s a track record for my spouse, the sun and the grocery store which establishes confidence and allows me to live without fretting.

And God’s track record? For this, I examine the prophets, and note how many of them are exonerated by Jesus’ first advent. A wide chorus of voices from different epochs and cultures sing in unison and by this build faith in the hope they see. This hope is a stake for us, a firm point around which we can turn with confidence and joy. Not a blue sky possibility, nor a vaporware promise, but real, good, worthy, true hope.

Peace

The little we know of Mary comes mostly from Luke, who secured records about her encounter with an angel, her brief stay with her cousin Elizabeth, the way she “treasured” comments made about her new son, and her receipt of blessing and warning from two denizens of the Temple. For Matthew, Mary stays in the background; for Mark, who offers no birth narrative, she is even further removed from the picture. John has a role for Mary, but not until Jesus has entered the public phase of His earthly ministry. And so, it is to Luke we owe a debt, for providing at least a little information about the early life of this extraordinary woman.

In a way, the lack of interest in Mary is in keeping with the Biblical record, where few individuals are singled out for extended treatment once we leave the OT. Jesus, of course, receives a great deal of attention. And several of the apostles appear with some frequency. Paul is one of these, but even then, it is clear that biography is not a prevailing Biblical interest. Despite our own desire for further detail, Luke, for instance, can quite easily close the curtain on Paul’s story once the apostle arrives at Rome.

Still, the few moments Mary occupies center stage impress us. Take her dialog with the angel who comes to inform her that she will carry the Lord. “How can this be?” she asks, not out of doubt as much as to indicate her commitment to purity, and her wonder at God’s work. And once she grasps the plan, she is completely, perfectly at peace: “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Then, there is her ‘magnificat’, which Luke incorporates with special care. Mary’s is the first of three songs associated with the miracle of Jesus’ birth; it precedes that of the high priest Zechariah and also the chorus of angels. Now, while many others heard the angels and the priest, we have no indication concerning Mary’s audience. What has inspired so much subsequent poetry and song originally played out, it would seem, for only one or two. Perhaps Elizabeth was there to listen in; perhaps Mary sang much as Jonah prayed in the fish: fervent, but alone.

She is not often among crowds, this woman. In Nazareth, she would have been shunned following the news of her illicit pregnancy. In Bethlehem, pressed by throngs of people coming in for the census, she went with Joseph to a stable removed from all others. Soon after the birth, she fled to Egypt in order to keep out of the public eye. As Jesus grows, we hear a bit more. There is a journey she took with relatives to Jerusalem (but is it because she is not among them that she does not hear for some time that her son has gone missing?). She also attends a wedding shortly before Jesus goes public, but in this story Mary stands off to one side, in hushed conversation with her eldest. Our final scene shows Mary at Jesus’ cross, with John and scant others. If there is a consistent idea from these brief encounters, it is that Mary is routinely close to the Lord.

It is generally accepted that John took her with him to Ephesus where she settled. And what became of Mary? Once again, we want to know more than text or tradition conveys. Did she guide the emerging church there as a worship leader, or teacher or wise counselor in spiritual matters? Perhaps. And perhaps it was the case that her heart was so fully subscribed by the Lord that she simply had little room left for any other.

Joy

Joy is a common theme for Christmas carols, but it is not nearly so frequent in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth as, say, fear, anxiety or uncertainty. Joseph had been afraid to take Mary as his wife, Zechariah was terrified by the messenger who came to him, Herod, like all Jerusalem with him, “was disturbed” (Matt 2:3), and Mary was troubled.

For joy, we must go to the shepherds. Or, more precisely, to the angel who spoke to the shepherds, for the former, upon seeing this angel, “were terrified” (Luke 2:9). The angel has no sympathy for this fear. Get over it, he says (a loose translation of “Fear not!”). Something far greater than your petty insecurities is going on right under your noses. The Savior has come, born just over that hill in Bethlehem. A Savior? Yes! The Christ, the Lord. The news I bring—this news—is a source of great joy for all, starting with you. So get up, get going.

“This will be a sign,” the angel promises (Luke 2:12), indicating that he expects action on the part of these shepherds, and not just rapt attention. “You will find,” the angel affirms, emphasizing the promise. But before they can gird up their loins and corral their woolly charges, a “great company of the heavenly host” appears, “praising God.”

Luke’s verb is in the present tense, suggesting that this concert might have taken some time. So it appears that while the angel has encouraged action, he is not demanding haste. The shepherds can spend time listening to this praise. Time to get over the fear, perhaps. Time for joy to transmit from angel to shepherd, perhaps.

The only people we know to be full of joy from the outset were the Magi. Matthew reports this, telling us how they “were overjoyed” (2:10) by the star leading them to the King they sought. When we realize that such news meant they would be leaving home for an extended trip (our carols turn these fellows into kings, but their journeying suggest they were more like knights) and face an uncertain future, the contrast between these people and others in Judea who were dealing with the same situation is all the more stark.
Part of the explanation for their reaction comes from the very ‘foreignness’ of the Magi: living in Persia they would have had few preconceptions about the Messiah’s advent. So when the star appears (mention of the Christmas angels and their musical program for Judean shepherds brings to mind a comment from Job—a wise man of the far east—of stars that sing), instead of being suspicious or indifferent, they are open to its message and set off to follow its lead. Their joy is a response to this heavenly sign.

Lives untouched by, indifferent to or leery of stars and angels can be happy, but they do not readily experience this sort of joy. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty and the deep desire to feed selfishness are far more natural, and thus easier to access and more quickly expressed. Still, we have the potential for joy, and Scripture suggests this is realized in response to God’s words and deeds; joy flows from the heartfelt embrace of revelation. The Magi (those knights before Christmas) show us this. There will be others, too—like the shepherds, eventually—to whom angels come, encouraging the shift from a natural to a more spiritual key. This advent, as these messengers attest, is meant to be a time of great joy.

And what of us: how do our hearts handle this news? The appearance of angels might terrify some, but those accustomed to spectacle and excess would probably not be sore afraid so much as stifle a yawn, or grab a snack, or return to a computer screen. Still, the angelic message is for us, too, inviting us to embrace revelation that unmakes our human inclinations toward fear and bauble, and tumble across the landscape with joy.

Love

One fine Sunday afternoon I found myself on a college campus, sitting at a high table in the student center. I had preached that morning in a church I had never before entered, had spent the previous night in a motel I’d never visited. There were people every place I went that weekend, but I felt very alone.
Through no fault of their own, these people did not know my story, did not intersect with my life in a significant way. We shared a meal, but I could talk with them only about incidentals. They were rooted to a place I was merely visiting; we occupied little common ground. After lunch, we parted ways—they to their homes, and me to hunt for a place to plug in my computer.

Some of this aloneness is self-imposed: it takes me considerable time to grow easy enough with people before I’m ready to talk about more than the weather with them. But some of it stems from how relationships tend to be closely guarded. New people do not easily fit in.

This is what makes hospitality so wondrous. Persons who extend it with sincerity and grace have a way of enfolding strangers and setting loneliness aside by making space for new ones to fill. My travels take me to places where I meet such people; they are rare, but welcome.

Hospitality is another Christmas word. We talk and sing of how Jesus came to an inn where there was no room; under our breath, we snicker, and chide these professional hospitaliters for turning folks away. But look to another offer of hospitality that does shine through. Consider how Jesus extends it.

In the Greek lexicon, hospitality implies a love for strangers. We are inclined to think of Jesus as that stranger at Christmas, as He arrives on foreign soil, deserving the milk of human kindness. But it is also possible to turn this picture on its head and consider Jesus as the source of such a mercy. After all, we to whom He came were the ones estranged from God. That Jesus would think to welcome people like us is a breathtaking example of hospitality. He puts Himself out on behalf of those who commonly treat Him badly; we who are so in need of love and kindness find just that.

It is a good lesson for Christmas, during a season that often evokes a measure of wistfulness. Counselors tell us it is a sad and lonely time for people bereft of loved ones, but even the most secure and surrounded among us can detect internally a certain melancholy. And we are not only lonely at Christmas. Quiet hearts know this pain far more often; many of us frequently feel alone.

We are built to belong; we long to be included, known, embraced. We stand outside glowing windows and want to go in; we plan for and dream about good meals with close friends. We travel far from home and think of those we’d like to be with; then, ironically, we arrive and even they are somehow sometimes not quite enough. What is the source of this ache?

It goes back to the Garden, when the Lord who made all sought fellowship with the crowning glory of His creation. But they demurred, and as a result, found themselves at odds with Him and even each other. Since then we have been trying to tie off a bleeding artery with little success. In theological terms, this is sin, playing out its life-robbing effects: in sin, we miss the mark of God’s standards. But more to the point, we simply miss God.

Jesus comes to give us another try at finding the One who loves us. He does this quietly—at least in His first advent. He calls, invites, beckons, makes room. He is wonderfully tolerant and inclusive in this; He makes room at His table for many. And what He shows during that advent He expands with the promise of a many-roomed house, where all may come, as friends.



Dan Schmidt serves with a mission agency and preaches when possible. He wrote Unexpected Wisdom (on the Minor Prophets) and Taken by Communion (reflections on communion). He blogs at http://www.toucanic.net.

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