This is a weird time of year. The days are so short. Even at our house where we eat dinner early we are eating it in the dark these days. The weather is turning to winter but keeps going back on that decision for a few nice days.
This time of year is a time of preparation.
- We prepare for winter- We have taken care of the leaves by now. It is time to put the rakes away. Where are the snow shovels? Is my snow brush and scraper in the car? Where is that box of hats and gloves? Is my snow blower working? Do I have enough salt? Enough bird seed?
- We prepare to finish a year- Did we hit our numbers at work? Did we accomplish our goals this year? Suddenly those New Year’s resolutions are on our minds again. As we are in school or have kids and grandkids in school we see that we are now into the flow of our studies and building up to the Christmas break. The term or semester is coming to an end.
- We prepare to begin a new year- When will I take vacation next year? Where will we go? What are we forecasting to do at work next year?
- We prepare for Christmas- What will I buy? Where will I buy it? Where will we spend Christmas and New Year’s? Whose house are we going to first? What about that gift exchange at work? What store can I get the best deal on the latest such and such?
This is a time of year with a lot of planning and anticipation.
When we make our plans, do we pay any attention to God? Do we ask what His will is or what his plans are? Or do we pay little to no attention to God. It is as if we are saying, “God, I’ll see you Christmas Eve.” Oh we go to church. This is the time of year where you are especially supposed to do that. But is our heart in it? Is our mind really present? Or are we just going through the motions? It is easy to check out and just get through. Even let our minds wander while we are in church. “Did I remember to call so and so at work?” “What present should I get so and so for Christmas?”
Our December worship reminds me of the Israelites during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah. When Isaiah comes on the scene, Israel is in trouble. Their nation is actually 2 nations—Israel in the North and Judah in the South. The Assyrians were threatening them and they could not stand up to the superior force. The power of the Assyrians are later usurped by the Babylonians who take all of the people of Israel and Judah that are left off of their land and forcefully move them into exile. They spread them out among the Assyrian and Babylonian territories so that they cannot be a threat. They are later allowed to return.
Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah is actually three different books potentially written by three different authors. The first part is written before the exile, the second in the middle of the exile, and the third part written after or as Israel returns.
Isaiah’s warning in the first section of the book is that the problems that Israel is facing is of their own doing. Think about the phrases we read in Chapter 1- rebelled, sinful nation, laden with iniquity, evildoers, deal corruptly, have forsaken the Lord, despised the Holy One of Israel… The country lies desolate and still they will not turn to the Lord. It is only by God’s grace than any of Israel is left. And listen to the key issue in verse 11:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
The indictment of Isaiah—You are going through the motions of worship. God does not ultimately care about the sacrifices. He cares about you. Because your worship is not heart felt your relationship with God is off. Because of that, you are not treating people rightly, you are not trusting God to lead you, and you are heading for a disaster.
But Isaiah is not only a book of warning and wrath. God’s response to Israel is 2-fold. There is a promise and a judgment. Hear these words from Isaiah 7:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:14-17 ESV)
Yes. You are going to have to leave your land. The judgment is coming, but with it hope. A child is going to be born. His name will be Immanuel which means God with us. He is going to be good and choose good. God has not abandoned you in your pain. God is with you, and will one day be with you in an even more real and special way.
We don’t read Isaiah all that much in the church normally. The one time of year that we do is this time of year. This is the season of Advent. It consists of the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas. The term Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come.” Advent is a season where we celebrate the coming of Jesus.
This does not mean, however, that we only remember the coming of Jesus as a baby. We actually celebrate the coming of Jesus in 3 senses. First, we remember that Jesus came in the past as a baby and a human being in order to die on the cross, rise from the dead, and save us from our sin. Second, we realize that Jesus comes in the present to us in our lives and to the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, we look forward to Christ’s return in the future where He will complete His reconciling work in the world.
Advent actually begins the Christian year. Rather than starting with Christmas, there is this time to prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas. It is similar to Lent- the time of preparation, repentance, and fasting before Easter. But the tone of Advent is different than the tone for Lent. Lent is a more solemn time of repentance and recognizing our need for Christ’s death. At Advent, however, we use words like Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace.
Advent is a season of expectation. It is a season of longing. We light another candle of the Advent wreath every Sunday so that we can see the candles slowly fill with light. We remember the coming light of Jesus.
Traditionally the church did not do Christmas hymns until after Christmas. Until then the church would sing Advent songs. These songs are slow and often in minor keys. They sing of coming with words often right out of the prophets like Isaiah. Why? Because we can identify with their longing and their waiting.
Think about what that journey must have been like in the church. You sing all of these songs about expectation, then at Christmas you swing into the fun and beautiful songs of Christmas.
We love anticipation, don’t we? The rest of my family is really into the show Finding Bigfoot. If you have not seen it, it is a show about a group of people trying to find and evaluate evidence of Sasquatch. I always tell my kids that if they ever really find one or even conclusive evidence of one that it will be on the news and not on this show. Still, they watch it. Why? Because of the anticipation that it builds. Will they hear a bigfoot? Are there bigfoots in the area? For 7 seasons these people have been not finding bigfoot, but still my family watches. I even get wrapped up in it.
We love anticipation. This is the entire game of baseball, right? Three hours of watching for 10 minutes of action but you don’t know when that action is coming. This is the whole idea behind scary movies. What is going to happen and when? We do not always like waiting, but we love anticipation.
There is something special about how Advent builds the anticipation of Christmas. The problem we have now is that the hymns are on the radio, on commercials, at Walmart, and in the mall. Those songs have been playing for a few weeks. Those are not played in those places to put you in the “Christmas spirit.” They are there to put you in the “buying spirit.”
Do you remember the book or the movies “How the Grinch stole Christmas”? This story by Dr. Seuss is a classic of Christmas. In the story the Grinch wants to stop Christmas from coming. He steals all of the Christmas items on Christmas Eve so that the Who’s down in Whoville will wake up and mourn that Christmas was stolen. It does not work, and the Grinch is changed forever because of it.
Really the Grinch had another strategy that he could have used. The real way to diminish Christmas is to steal Advent. Without Advent Christmas is not so bright, joyful, or meaningful.
Unfortunately, I wonder if this is exactly what has happened. I mourn the loss of Advent because it lessens the power of Christmas. That is why every year I preach about Advent when it starts, and I do 1 or 2 Advent Sundays before we get into Christmas hymns. Because it is important. If we don’t think this way, then the words of Isaiah are as much for us as it was for them. We cannot just go through the motions of our worship. That only leads to rebellion against God, the abuse of others, and the desolation of our lives.
Advent is our holy rebellion.
Advent is not a season to get through, it is a perspective to be taken.
It is not a build up to Christmas. It is a spiritual posture to strive for.
The perspective and posture is this—do you want Jesus to come? Really? Do you want that more than anything else? Because that is the good news of Advent. Not just that Christ came as a baby, but that He is coming again. Wrongs will be righted. Brokenness will be healed. Poverty obliterated. Lost people found. Hatred removed.
We don’t know when. We don’t really know how. But we live in hope. Not sappy, Pollyanna hope. Not ridiculous over-the-top hope. But steady, real hope. A longing hope. An anticipating hope.
A pastor was preparing his Advent and Christmas services and was very busy. As he worked into the evening, his daughter came in to see him. She had to say “daddy” a few times before he looked up from his work. She said, “Daddy, will you play with me?”
He smiled, but feeling the crunch of his work, said, “Honey, I have a lot of work to do.”
The little girl was not happy with that answer. “If you play with me, I’ll give you a great big hug. The biggest hug you have ever had!”
The pastor could not turn down such an offer. He told her, “I’ll make you a deal. Let me work hard for one more hour and then I promise we can play together.”
She answered quickly, “Sounds like a deal.” As she walked to the door to leave, she suddenly stopped, whipped around, ran to her dad, and laid on him a great big hug.
He said to her, “Honey, you said you would give me that hug when we played.”
She looked at him, with an innocence that only a child can have, and said to him, “I know, dad. I just wanted you to see what you had to look forward to.”
That is Advent. It is a time when you and I look up from our work and our busyness and see what we have to look forward to. I don’t just mean Christmas. I mean Christmas as a sign of something bigger. That Christ is returning someday and all will be made right in the world.
Immanuel, God with us, is still with us and will be with us again.
Advent is the weird time where we look beyond our current realities and find hope that something bigger is going on. May you find in this season all that you have to look forward to.