In most years in the past, around this time, my focus starts to go towards Christmas. In some years, that means I'm thinking about presents and family and food and good times and great memories. In other years, perhaps when I've been less distracted and a wee more 'spiritual', these thoughts are accompanied by a reflection on the birth and life of Jesus.
But I think the time of Advent (contrasted with the day of Christmas) is about even more than that. I might just be really slow to the party, but I think this year it is hitting me harder than ever before.
But... before I talk about that problem, I need to talk about a different problem.
[Hold on to your hats - we're going to cover a lot of ground here in a short amount of time!]
Over the last few hundred years, the world was going through the Enlightenment and the period known as Modernism. This has shaped Christians and the church considerably. For one thing, we have developed an understanding of being a Christian that is about belief in certain doctrines. "Believe this, this and that, and POW! you're a Christian".
This belief is stationary. Static.
It's just about what boxes you do or don't tick in that specific moment.
I don't want to completely undermine all that. I think those beliefs can be incredibly important.
But.... are we missing something?
I wonder if perhaps we sometimes forget the deep, life-transforming understanding of the story that we are a part of. That story is, of course, the bible story.
Theologians like N.T. Wright and others have talked about this big bible story like a Shakespeare play, with several acts. The first few acts are what we see in the bible, beginning with creation, then the fall, then the Israel 'act', then Jesus, then the act of the church. The idea is that we're meant to see, as we read and meditate on the bible story, that we are a part of God's big bible story.
Imagine actors that are thrown onto the stage after the first few acts... without a script. But they are experts at all things Shakespeare - they know everything about all the acts that came before. They know the characters, the story motif's, the tensions and conflicts, they know what is going on in the story, and where it seems to be heading. Their understanding of the broader story would help them know how to act out their current moment.
I hope you see where I'm going with this...
The idea is that we're characters in this big bible story that is unfolding all around us. The universe is the stage, and the bible is our guide to understanding the story and our place in it.
So, now we can go back to Advent. What was going on in the story then? And what does that mean for us for where we are at in the story now?
Jesus was born into the 'Israel' act of the story. You may have heard people calling Jesus the "Christ". This was a title. This had huge significance to all those who understood and knew what was going on in the story.
Christ (in English) comes from the Greek word used in the New Testament: 'christos'
This word comes from the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament: 'mashiach' - translated in English as 'Messiah'.
So, people who are keeping up with the story, when they hear that this Jesus is the 'christos', the 'mashiach', it's like a big real life hyperlink taking people back to earlier in the story, giving them context for who this Jesus is. It becomes clear through the use of these titles that he is a specific character that previous characters in earlier acts of the 'play' had been talking about: the coming Christ/Messiah.
So, what were they hoping for? What were they longing and waiting and pining for? What were the people of Israel hoping for with this coming Christ/Messiah? Let's just consider some of that really briefly:
In Genesis, we see a promise that God will send someone who will 'strike the head' of the evil serpent from the Garden of Eden. This was a hope for one who would come, as a seed of Eve (i.e. human) and would somehow finally demolish all that is evil in the world - all that causes sin and its destruction. (Gen 3:15)
God makes a big promise to Abraham that includes the future blessing of the whole world through his family lineage. (Gen 12:1-3)
The Psalms outline one who is coming who will be a perfect and eternal king and priest for his people (Eg Psalm 2)
The prophet Isaiah spoke of the suffering servant who was going to suffer for the sake of the world. (Isaiah 53)
Isaiah also spoke about a "Prince of Peace", a future royal figure, who will bring salvation to God’s people and the world and establish a kingdom characterised by features such as peace and justice. (Isaiah 9)
As you can see, they had placed a lot of hope on this coming Christ/Messiah figure. And they waited a. long. time....
There were about 400 years between the last prophet of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus! 400 years of silence, of trusting in the darkness, of passing the story of hope down generation by generation.
So for us, as we think back to the 'act' of the story before Jesus came, we remember and identify with the Jewish people who patiently waited, and hoped and trusted. And understanding that part pf the story, completely shapes how we live in this part of the story.
We are a people not living just for today. We are a people part of a big glorious story.
Our hope is not ultimately that we get what we want on this side of eternity. It isn't getting some answer to a prayer, or some big 'breakthrough'. Our ultimate hope and eager expectation is bigger and richer and deeper than that.
This Advent, indeed every Advent, we're reminding ourselves that we're a waiting people. That this Jesus, this Christ/Messiah, will come again to consummate what he has begun, to usher in a new creation. This includes living with resurrected bodies, in a world of justice and peace, where we experience unveiled the fiery fullness of God's love, light and life as it pervades every aspect of our being.
So... Advent is not just the lead up to toys and presents and family and feasts. Advent is not only the lead up to Christmas - as wondrous as that is.
This time of Advent is a time where we all are invited to reflect and remember: We are a part of a big glorious story, with Jesus as the central figure.
O Holy Night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error - pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt it's worth
The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder brinks a new and glorious morn.