I have a confession to make. Not that long ago, I used to hate the pre-Christmas season; the malls and consumerism, the “busy-ness” of it all. I was filled this “righteous indignation” at all the add ons- what do red bows and mistletoe have to do with Jesus? It was distracting, it was chaos, it was throwing pearls to the swine or making the house of prayer into a den of thieves (or so I thought). I was offended on Jesus’ behalf. I even boycotted the whole thing for years (by “the whole thing” I don’t mean Christmas, but all the Christmas traditions developed over history). Advent was a season “holy anger” if you will.
My own mother used to call me a Grinch.
So, what’s changed?
Well the biggest thing that’s changed in those years is the growth in the understanding of Messianic expectation, of the hope and waiting for the arrival of our Lord. Understanding the birth of Christ not as an isolated event, but part of a bigger and still unfolding story.
Throughout the advent season, we often turn to words of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, writing centuries before the birth of Jesus was eagerly waiting for the movement of God in history- the arrival of the promised Messiah, and grand coming of the Kingdom. For centuries, Israel waited in hopeful expectation of the season of celebration of God’s arrival. And I complain when Christmas stuff shows up on store shelves in October.
Messiah was a long time coming, or at least that’s how Israel seemed to feel. “How long O Lord, how long?” became the lament of the people of God. When will you act? When will this promise of “good news” come to pass? When will we experience this comfort you promise?
Luke, in the beginning of his narrative wrote (1:5-7):
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
This rings familiar to a Jew in the first century. Both our bible study groups have been walking through 1 Samuel. And we’ve talked a lot about Hannah and Elkanah; righteous Israelites enduring infertility.
This is what Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books, 1981) and others call a “type scene”. A narrative tool used to focus our attention and drop clues as to what God is doing. In this case, we see righteous Israelites longing for progeny. Zechariah and Elizabeth reflect previous couples- Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, Jacob & Rachel, Manoah & his wife, Elkanah & Hannah. There is a prophetic word or revelation, and a son of promise is born- a new hero and focus of the history of God’s people, one who preserves the hope of Israel. God is about to do something big in Zechariah and Elizabeth, and this promised son is to be a son of the promise, one who would lead Israel- the next hero if you will.
But Luke does something here…
Elizabeth is a married woman, she should have children, but doesn’t. She’s old, presumably past “child-bearing age”. She should be done giving birth by now, but hasn’t started. But then, before her son is born, we meet another woman… not yet married, probably early teens- she shouldn’t be getting pregnant yet, but she is.
What is Luke up to?… he’s setting a scenario for us. A Jewish audience hearing this for the first time would immediately be drawn to John. John is the next in a line of heroes.
John the Baptist is the end of the OT model. The way Luke tells the story is very intentional. He is making an important point- a contrast. John is the old model. Jesus is the new. That old model produced temporary results. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Samuel lead the people and preserve the promise to Abraham. But there is no fulfilment. Jesus is the fulfilment of 2000 years of waiting and hoping and clinging to this promise.
The ministry of John the Baptist is depicted in parallel to Elijah. Elijah, if you’ll recall came in a very dark time in Israel’s history- prophets of God were being chased down and killed, ordered by Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. Elijah comes and begins a process of fostering repentance. But when Elijah is taken up by God, the work isn’t completed. John the Baptist does not complete things, but creates anticipation, excitement, hope- he is the one crying out in the desert that the Lord is coming. He is the one bringing Good News- “Here is your God”.
In a world full of war and chaos, and economic hardship and hopelessness stands Jesus. The world has always known war, economic hardship, evil, hatred and death. How do we maintain hope in the face of all the evidence that suggests there is no hope?
Frederich Nietzsche called hope “worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” (Human All Too Human section 71).
Suffice to say, I disagree with Freddy here… he had some anger issues to say the least.
Hope sustains mankind. In the darkness, we need a light, or the darkness will consume and destroy us. Without hope, we have no reason to press on. We give up, and the darkness takes over.
Jesus comes as the light shining in the darkness. Jesus came to a world twisted and broken by sin and evil and chose to set up shop. As John tells us “The word became flesh and pitched his tent among mankind.” (Jn. 1:14)
Light made it’s home in darkness. The thing about light, when it comes into the darkness, what happens to darkness? It’s gone.
Isaiah says “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa. 40:5). Light reveals. Light makes things visible. Jesus’ arrival gives us perspective and insight. Suddenly we see what God is up to; we see God. We see the Good News that God is coming. We can proclaim boldly, as Isaiah tell us “here is your God” (40:9). Here, in this tiny baby is the Lord Almighty.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all quote from Isa. 40 in reference to John the Baptist. John is commissioned to be the one to proclaim the arrival of the Christ. He became the voice crying out in the wilderness (40:3), the one given “good news” to proclaim to the people. Not good news concerning himself, but the good news that their hope was not in vain. God will indeed be revealed to them. The people of God had suffered, and cried out, God, how long. John is sent to say, here it comes. It is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (Isa. 40:9)
We have good news. Good news that will bring light and hope to people suffering in darkness; news that will fill people with peace and joy. We have received good news. The angel proclaims to the shepherd, “I bring you good news” (Lk. 20:10). Jesus came into our world as a fulfilment of the hope of Israel. We now wait with that same hope. God will fulfill our hope, and he does so in Christ the Lord. We, the church, God’s assembled and gathered people are heralds like John the Baptist. Our calling is proclaim the Good News; here is your God. The Kingdom is at hand. He is gathering his lambs in his arms (40:11). He has come to reclaim what was his, and vindicate those who are oppressed by injustice and free those enslaved by sin.
Advent is a time we refocus our attention. We trust God to work in history, to continue the work begun with the arrival of Christ in our midst. We echo the prophets and pray as Jesus taught us to- to pray your Kingdom come. Come Lord Jesus, come. Bring your comfort again. Speak tenderly to us, and gather your lambs in your arms.