(This post was first published in December 2014.)
It seems that the Christmas season begins earlier and earlier. Seasonal goods appear on the supermarket shelves in September, cities switch on their Christmas lights in mid-November, and carols begin to play on the radio before December has arrived… Welcome to Advent, twenty-first century style.
Note: we consumerists don’t like to have to wait for anything. Even if we can’t have the gifts and the baby Jesus today, we’re going to act like we can, waiting be damned.
My church background is Pentecostal, and we Pentecostals are not known for waiting patiently in the in-between times. We tend to hit the highs and ignore pretty much everything else. For example, we ignore Lent, that time of self-deprivation in anticipation of the self-giving of Jesus, and then we more or less skip right over good Friday and rush triumphalistically to Easter Sunday. Similarly, we ignore Advent – the term would not even be recognised by most Pentecostals, except in reference to a calendar with chocolates in it – and jump straight into Christmas on 25 December, when the Saviour’s birth is announced with great pomp, choirs of angels assisting. There is no time for prior reflection on the mystery of Advent, which is about those who dwelled in darkness and did not know the great light was coming (see Isaiah 9:2).
They waited, and they hoped, but they did not know.
Those dark days and years that preceded the coming of Jesus are known to us as the intertestamental period – the period between the Old and New Testaments.
Why were they dark?
They were dark for a number of reasons. They were dark because Israel’s glory days – the days of David and Solomon after him, when kings and queens would come from afar to marvel at Israel’s wealth and power – were memories lost in a dim and distant past. They were dark because the generational memory of the humiliating Babylonian exile was still painfully fresh. And, most of all, they were dark because, all of God’s promises to send a deliverer notwithstanding, the Jewish people continued to languish under the heel of the harsh Roman oppressor.
Dark days indeed… and yet, hope was alive. In spite of everything that had befallen them, the Jews still dared to cling to the hope that Messiah would come, and soon.
But, though we may admire their tenacity, the fact is that the hope of most of the Jewish people was misplaced. They looked for a mighty warrior king to overthrow their Roman enemies and rulers; little wonder, then, that when the hoped-for king came as a baby, grew up as a rural carpenter, and died a common criminal, they missed him altogether.
Fast-forward two thousand years.
In many ways, we find ourselves in a similar in-between time. Behind us, in dim ancestral memory, lies the coming of the Saviour. Then, after the triumph of his reported victory over sin and death, come twenty centuries of darkness, persecution and violence, culminating in the twentieth century: the bloodiest in human history. And, in spite of the exaggerated hope with which it was heralded, the twenty-first century has brought more of the same – wars and rumours of wars, famine, disease, and growing violence threatening to rage out of control.
And yet, like the Jews two millennia ago, in spite of all the darkness behind and around us, we stubbornly cling to the hope that something is coming, that God is going to once again intervene decisively in history to put right that which is wrong, to bring justice, and to vindicate his beleaguered people.
But my question, in this Advent season, is this: who are you waiting for?
Are you, like the Jews, waiting for a king who will ride in on a white horse with a sword in his hand to slay his enemies and overthrow their violent kingdoms with greater, more righteous violence? Are you focused so intently on looking for the triumph of Jesus’ second coming that you will miss its small, humble seeds whose shoots, for those who have eyes to see, are already in evidence? Or are you so busy looking for him among the great and the powerful that you fail to see him right where he is already, in the poor and the lowly, the sick and the outcast, the weak and the marginalised?
Friends, it’s easy for us to look back at the Jews of Jesus’ day and scorn them for their foolishness in completely missing the king they’d waited four hundred years for. But really, we should have some sympathy for them: they were still in the dark, still reeling from their soul-crushing exile and occupation, grasping onto a forlorn hope in the only way they knew how.
But what about us, who have lived two thousand years in the light of Christ and his glorious gospel of peace? What about us who, even if Jesus’ own example and teaching were set aside, have surely seen enough history to know that violence, however sacred and divinely sanctioned it may appear, always and only breeds more and greater violence? Surely we must know by now that a kingdom of everlasting peace cannot be founded upon the violent, bloody destruction of its enemies?
And so I end with the question in the title of this post: who are you waiting for this Advent? Or, to put it another way, in what is your hope? Is it in the coming of a great warrior king who will come again to trample the world’s violence and oppression underfoot? If it is, I fear you are to disappointed, passed by and buried in the ashes of history, just as Jesus’ contemporaries were.
Or do you instead hear Messiah’s voice in the cry of the hungry, see his eyes in the face of the dispossessed, and wait patiently, hoping against hope, for the day when men will finally lay down their swords, bow their knees and accept the forgiving, liberating kiss of peace?
[ Image: Matthias Ripp ]