Advent Primer

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When reflecting on the Christmas story I usually jump straight to Luke’s telling of the nativity. He does a wonderful job at painting the picture of the journey and celebration culminating in the virgin birth. Although joyous, I find that it causes me to focus on the singular event rather than the whole scope of what is occurring.

John’s gospel starts off with the telling of the birth of Jesus by going all the way back before the dawn of creation. “In the beginning” causes us to pull back from the nativity to a view of the entire timeline. Instead of seeing only months, we see thousands of years. We find ourselves looking at Jesus at the dawn of time, the Word that speaks and there is light.

Moving forward we see “the Word took on flesh”. John continues the creation story in his take on nativity. Jesus places himself in his own creation. The Message translation says “and moved into the neighbourhood”. This brings to mind imagery of God walking in the garden with Adam and Eve.

“And we have seen his glory” – John 1:14

Adam and Eve witnessed the glory of God. They walked with him, and knowing no sin they were not struck down by the sight. When Jesus took on flesh he allowed us to see the glory in a fallen world. This is not just the birth of God, but the first time since the gate to Eden was shut that the glory of God could be witnessed with an unveiled face, no sacrifice needed.

This is so much bigger than a single moment! For all of history, creation was lying in wait, anxious and crying out because of the separation. The Word takes on flesh, as if it were the final day of creation, a moment of completion we were all waiting for. This celebration is so much bigger than any of us realised. The anticipation dates back further than we can fathom. This moment echoes further than any of the witnesses understood.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” – John 1:1-2

I can only imagine how long the wait felt to the angels before showing up to the shepherds. This was no sudden move, but planned since the beginning. It is why John starts with “in the beginning”. Right from the beginning this plan began to rectify the fall of man by God taking on flesh and giving up the skin of God while still radiating the glory.

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” – John 1:12-13

The birth of Christ in John’s gospel doesn’t just look back to the dawn of time but stretches to eternity. The birth of the King welcomes us into an inheritance of eternal life. This moment is not the start of a new story, but is the pivotal mark in the ongoing story. The celebration is not complete for John in the celebration only of a new born king or even in the living God dwelling with us.

The story of the birth of Jesus is incomplete without the acknowledgement of the larger role it plays in history. The Word taking on flesh is the moment of victory, for this world had fallen and now the glory of God has moved back into the neighbourhood. Victory is ensured and the promised inheritance has been sealed.

Yes, the moments of the cross, descent, resurrection and ascension are also required in securing the victory over death and sin. But the moment Emmanuel was born is what all creation was waiting for since sin entered this world. God with us was always the intention and sin created distance from the glory of God. But God, not wanting this separation, took on flesh for a time as a foretaste of what was and is to come. Once again men and women could join the ranks of Adam and Eve walking with God in the cool of the day.

John 1 gives us the whole storyboard instead of a single chapter. At the center is Jesus. He is at the center of it all. We are celebrating Jesus, yes the birth of Jesus, but also everything his birth stands for. He is what creation was crying out for and who we still await with joyful expectation.

In Advent we find ourselves in a season of anticipation. We place ourselves on both sides of the virgin birth. We join with all those from Adam until the birth who waited with bated breath for the glory of God to be made manifest. We also acknowledge the anticipation of our current state. We wait for the return of Jesus and the end of this age. We hope for and rejoice in the victory that is set but not yet our reality.

John shows us God has already written the story. Before the dawn of time this story has been written like a play waiting for actors to take their places on the stage. We celebrate moments along the way but Advent calls us to embrace in faith the story that is unfolding before us.

Renewed Hope

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Last year as I was researching the season of Advent, I was surprised to find out the celebration wasn’t explicitly linked to Christmas until the middle ages. The church originally used this time to anticipate the second coming of Jesus. It wasn’t until centuries later the focus became more on the birth of Jesus.

What we have today is a season leading up until Christmas, focused on the already and the not yet. It is joining in the anticipation of Israel for the long expected messiah as well as the return of Jesus, when he will make all things right.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
John 14:1-3

This season, like Lent, is not about the celebration, but finding hope in what is to come. It is a time when we purposefully acknowledge this world is not where we belong, and we are waiting for Jesus to return like he said he would. Just like the promise of his birth foretold through the prophets, we know and look forward to the return he promised.

Over time, Advent for many of us has disappeared. It has become the pre-celebration of Christmas. We have Christmas parties and feasting throughout the time leading up to Christmas. It becomes about family and loved ones, being together and finding joy in this life. In many ways, this is contrary to what the season is supposed to be.

Hope can be a hard thing to hold on to. When our hope is in and for things in this life, there is a possibility of disappointment. That does not mean we should altogether do away with hoping for things in this life. God shows up in this life and not just in the next one. But our hope in the return of Jesus, and what he will bring, cannot be taken away. In fact, when we place our hope in his return, trials only increase our joy as we find our hope stands true.

Anticipation for the return of Jesus is focused on a time beyond this earth. It is built on what Jesus has already bought, but only as the first fruits of what is to come. Anticipation for the return of Jesus can be tough because there is no countdown clock. We think, How long must I wait for the promise to be fulfilled? It is like an engagement with no wedding date set.

The focused wait of Advent is meant to tune our hearts and minds to the kingdom of God. When our hope is set on things in this life, that is where our focus will be. When our hearts and minds are set on the return of Jesus, that is what we work towards, what we talk about, where our treasure is.

Advent helps reset our focus. The feast of Epiphany will follow, a season of celebrating Jesus’ presence with us. Emmanuel, God with us, came in the form of a baby to bring light into the darkness and restore us back to relationship with our maker.

I remember one of my mom’s sisters and her family would not decorate the house for Christmas until Christmas Eve. They wouldn’t mix the season of Advent with the season of Christmas. I didn’t understand this as a child. Why put off the celebration of something you love? What good does that do?

As I have grown older, I have come to know the greatest of treasures here does not compare to what we are looking forward to in Jesus’ return. He will bring an end to our pain and sorrow. The best celebration here will pale in comparison to a day in the house of the Lord. Advent reminds us that living for today is meaningless. It helps renew our hope and place it in something more deserving.

Advent should align us not to proper celebration for Christmas, but in placing our hope correctly, in something that is not temporary but everlasting. The practice of Advent produces hope in something that is not a present reality but eternal, not looking forward to the presents under the Christmas tree, or even the time around the table with friends and family.

As the rest of the world looks to the treasures in this world in this season, it may be harder to focus on what is to come, but abstinence is where we find joy in the hope. When we find opposition in our hope, it builds our character and strength.

Traditionally advent was a time of fasting and prayer. Like Lent, it was a time to abstain from the treasures of this life to find the treasure of real value. Wow! We have come a long way from this practice!

Why not give some things up this Advent season? It’s not too late to stop the Christmas movie binge, or to save those cookies for Christmas. Why not wait in this season? Why not spend some time exploring what life will be like when Jesus returns? Why not focus in this season on what is eternal? Why not share our hope with others, telling of what Jesus brought, and the hope we have in his return?

This is not a season of punishment, but reward. To find our hope realigned is in itself a treasure, one not easily stolen or dismayed.

The Anticipation Begins

Advent starts this Sunday! I love this season. It invites us to both look back at the anticipation of the coming Lord from the Old Testament and look forward to his return. As someone who has always loved the Old Testament, I love entering into the anticipation of prophets like Isaiah with expectant hope for the sovereign Lord’s dwelling among us. I also join with Paul in setting my eyes on the return of Jesus. In this season we joyfully anticipate the very soon return of Jesus.

Advent is a season I grew up celebrating. My father was raised in the Catholic Church before spending many years pastoring in other denominations (20 of those years in a Mennonite Brethren church in Nova Scotia). He loved this season. He loved taking a look at the Messianic passages of the Old Testament and tapping into the emotions of those who received the prophetic messages from God. Every Christmas he would dress up as a biblical character to share the joy-filled message of the coming, or just born, king. I loved how this drew me into the story. I experienced the anticipation of Jesus and not just the reality of Him already here with us.

Advent is a season in which we are led to anticipate and welcome the return of Jesus. The early believers readily awaited his return. After almost 2,000 years since Jesus’ ascension to heaven, we have lost some of their ready expectation. The long wait makes it really difficult to anticipate his return or even find hope in this promise.

This season is all about rediscovering this anticipation. The intent is to freshly discover Emmanuel, God with us, through the eyes of a people who cried out for his coming, who anticipated with expectant hope the coming of the King.

Jesus comes to a world that is in need of him, has been told he is coming, yet has somehow forgotten. Since the fall of creation, the coming of Jesus has been revealed. The nation of Israel was to be in ready anticipation for the coming of Jesus. Not only that, they were also to tell the world of his coming. When it finally happened the anticipation had been largely lost. There is a beautiful story at the end of Luke 2 in which a man named Simeon is told by God he would not die before seeing the coming saviour. His life was lived in anticipation, in expectant joy for the day of Jesus’ coming. As an old man, he holds Jesus in his arms and praises God!

I have a lot to learn about anticipating the second coming of Jesus. There is so much to anticipate! When Jesus returns, he is ushering in a new heaven and new earth. He is bringing completion to the restoration he began. It is a day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. It is a day when we see Jesus, our saviour, riding in complete victory.

Jesus tells us he is returning soon. Soon means it will be sudden. There will not be warning. We are always to be ready and anticipating it. We are always to find hope in it, and sharing that hope with others. It will be a day when there will be no sin, no pain, no heartache. This is good news to share. Like a captured Israel who knew their need to be saved, we too are living in a world we do not belong in. This is not our home! Our kingdom is not of this earth and we are going to be welcomed home upon the return of Jesus. We are foreigners until the day of his return.

We are faced these days with a global refugee crisis. There are millions of people who have left their home and nation to seek refuge elsewhere. Likewise, as followers of Jesus we are not in our home. We are not seeking refuge here, but are anticipating the day we will be brought home by Jesus. This life, on this earth, is not what we are living for or building towards. We are waiting for the day of our last breath, or Jesus’ return. God has plans for us until then, but how wonderful that day will be! We have never actually been home, but we do know it is better than anything we could hope for. There is no chance of disappointment. There will never be a point where we would look back on this life and wish we could go back and experience something else. Each moment will be better than anything in this world.

Over the next four Sundays I am going to post blog entries looking back and forward, back at what was fulfilled in Jesus, and forward to what we are anticipating in his return.