What’s Advent All About?
Most of you probably know that traditional Christmas song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. In the calendar of the church year, the twelve days refer to the days of feasting for the Christmas celebration, starting on Christmas Day, December 25th, and running until January 5th, the last day of the Christmas season. January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the coming of the wise men to visit Jesus, and the night before January 6th, the eve of the Epiphany, is traditionally known as ‘Twelfth Night’. In days gone by most people would not put up a Christmas tree or decorate their house for Christmas until Christmas Eve, and the decorations would then stay up for the twelve days of Christmas and come down on Twelfth Night. Some people had a ‘burning of the greens’ on Twelfth Night, when the Christmas tree and the holly and other Christmas greenery would be burned.
I’m a bit naïve, so it took me a few years to realise that the retail industry has completely revised this calendar – and they’ve done a very successful job of it. Many people in Canada now think that the twelve days of Christmas are the twelve shopping days before Christmas. Most people now put up their Christmas trees long before Christmas, and take them down a couple of days afterwards. A few years ago I was at a new year’s eve party organised by a friend. A lot of musicians were there and we were all playing songs together. I played ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and some people were quite surprised that I would do so, since, to them, Christmas was over. But I was only on the eighth night, you see!
This illustrates the fact that at this time of year we in the church are on a calendar that’s significantly different from the world around us. The world around us has been getting ready for Christmas for almost a month now – ever since the Halloween stuff disappeared from the stores, in fact. My copy of the Edmonton Journal has been getting thicker and thicker each day as the sale flyers are multiplying; the Christmas carols are playing in the stores, and the retail industry is ramping up for its busiest time of the year. All of it to do with sales, of course, and very little of it to do with the actual story of the birth of Jesus. The Christmas carols in the stores aren’t meant to get people thinking about the birth of Jesus; they’re meant to get us in the mood for spending lots of cash.
But in the church – at least, in the parts of the church that follow the traditional calendar of the church year – we’re beginning the season of Advent. Advent is all about the coming of the kingdom of God, and the coming of his Messiah who will bring in his kingdom. So in Advent we spend a lot of time in the Old Testament prophets. They looked around at all the sufferings of God’s people, and then they looked ahead to a time to come when God would rescue his people from evil and restore them to his original dream for them.
Some of those prophecies were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, and so yes, it’s true, Advent includes the note of preparation for Christmas – although the preparation is less about our need for the perfect gift idea and more about our need for a Saviour. But some of the prophecies have yet to be fulfilled, and so in Advent we also look ahead, to the day when Jesus will be revealed as Lord of heaven and earth, the day when the kingdom of God will be established on earth in all its fulness and, as one of the prophets says, the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
So we get out the Advent wreath, which has the four candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent, either blue (which is the colour of hope) or purple (which is the colour of repentance). I hope you all make an Advent wreath for yourselves at home and light it each day, perhaps at supper time, and perhaps adding a brief Bible reading or prayer on the themes of Advent. There are all sorts of resources on the Internet to help us celebrate Advent using the wreath. And whereas in the secular world the Christmas carols have been rolling for a month, in the church we have a special collection of traditional hymns about Advent and the coming of the kingdom of God. Some of you perhaps want to start singing the Christmas hymns right away, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the vital themes of the Advent season.
What are some of those themes? Let me suggest three of them, and point you toward some scriptures that explain them.
The first theme is hope. When we’re going through dark times, either as a community or a nation, or as individuals, we all know how important it is for us to have hope. I expect that those of you who are old enough to remember the Second World War will remember Vera Lynn singing these words:
There'll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover,
Someday, just you wait and see
There'll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover,
Someday, when the world is free.
For people who remember the dark days of war, these are very emotional words, recalling a time when there seemed to be very little hope at all. They express the longing of a whole generation caught up in suffering it could never have imagined, desperately wanting to believe that it was not going to last forever.
The shepherd will tend his sheep
And the meadow will bloom again,
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.
Of course, when that song was written Spitfires were flying over the white cliffs of Dover, the shepherd’s pasture might well have been made into a minefield, and Jimmy’s ‘own little room’ could easily have been destroyed by a bomb. Still, when people heard that song, it gave them a sense of hope that things didn’t always have to be like that, and that hope helped them to keep going.
We also live in a world today where hope is often in short supply. We’ve just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and those of you who remember that event in 1989 may remember how we all looked out optimistically on a world from which the threat of war seemed to have receded significantly, and hoped for better days to come. Little did we know what was ahead for us, with 9/11 and the war on terror and all that followed it! And when we add the food crisis and the threat of climate change and the economic recession and so on, the world can seem like a place in desperate need of some hope.
We find that hope in the Old Testament promises of the coming of the kingdom of God. Listen to these words from the prophet Micah:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:1-4).
Micah points us toward a time when humanity’s obsession with war will come to an end, and when the people of the world will live in safety with no one to make them afraid. But this isn’t just a romantic peacenik sort of vision; it comes as a result of a general desire to turn to God’s ways and to accept God’s law as our path of life.
The early church saw this scripture as having been partially fulfilled with the coming of Jesus and his sending out of his church to spread the gospel to the whole earth: the word of the Lord had indeed gone out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Of course, the fulfilment was not yet complete; today we still look to the future for its completion. But because it is a promise of God and not just a pious wish, we can look ahead into God’s future with certainty, and we can work for peace and justice now, knowing that our labours are not in vain, because God will confirm them and establish them when the Day of the Lord comes.
So during the Advent season we meditate on this hope and we draw encouragement from it. We can find those Old Testament prophecies and read them again; a good way to find them is by listening to a recording of the first half of Handel’s ‘Messiah’, because many of them are included in it. As we read them or hear them, we’ll experience what Paul talks about in Romans 15, where he says, ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4).
So hope is one of the main themes of Advent. But there’s a second theme, closely related to it: the theme of judgement. Many people don’t like this word; it’s associated in their minds with hellfire and brimstone preachers trying to literally ‘scare the hell’ out of people. Many Christians today will repeat the old saw that ‘the Old Testament God is a God of judgement and the New Testament God is a God of love’.
But in fact there can be no hope for the world without judgement. If God is not going to judge evil and remove it from his world, how can things ever be different here? If God is going to allow people like Hitler and Pol Pot and Stalin to continue to murder millions of people; if he’s going to allow greedy countries to continue to gobble up ten times their fair share of the natural resources of the world; if he’s going to allow rapists and child molesters to continue to inflict suffering on the weak and helpless – if all of that is going to continue because ‘God is a God of love’, then how can there be hope? Hope is meaningless without change, and the sort of change that’s necessary includes judgement.
The New Testament writers are in full agreement with this idea, and so the old saw about the note of judgement being absent from the New Testament turns out to be completely false. In fact, some of the strongest language about judgement in the New Testament comes from Jesus himself! Jesus is the one who tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which those who have refused to care for the needy are excluded from God’s future kingdom. Jesus is the one who talks about the servant who knew his master’s will and didn’t do it, and so received a greater beating. And Jesus is the one who tells us that if we want to enter God’s kingdom it isn’t enough just to call him ‘Lord, Lord’; we have to put his teaching into practice and do the will of his Father in heaven.
So in Advent, as we meditate on the theme of judgement, it’s a good idea to turn our eye onto ourselves, to examine ourselves, to see how we fall short of the way of life that Jesus has taught us, and to make the necessary changes in our lifestyle. The traditional word for this is ‘repentance’, which means a change of mind leading to a change of life: turning away from what is evil and turning toward what is good. In Isaiah 40 the prophet talks about ‘preparing the way of the Lord’; ‘Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain’ (Isaiah 40:4). I don’t know about you, but I know that in my life there are plenty of ‘rough places’ that need to be made plain, and plenty of ‘uneven ground’ that needs to be leveled. Advent is a good time to work on these things.
So we’ve talked about two Advent themes, hope and judgement. A third theme, related to them both, is readiness. The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that we don’t know when the day of the Lord is going to come. Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that ‘about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (v.36), and he tells us that his coming will be as unexpected as a thief breaking into a house during the night. ‘Therefore you also must be ready’, he says, ‘for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’ (v.44). This illustration of a thief breaking unexpectedly into a house during the night obviously captured the imagination of the early church; Paul repeats it in 1 Thessalonians 5 where he says, ‘for you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’ (v.2), and Peter also uses it in his second letter, chapter 3, where he says, ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief’ (v.10).
Of course, it’s not the damage that the thief does that these writers are stressing; it’s the unexpected nature of his coming. Everyone was asleep, no one was prepared, and so the thief got away with it. And Jesus warns us in the gospels not to be asleep – in other words, not to get lulled into thinking that the day is never going to come. Instead, we’re to be ready, and we’re to show our readiness by our eagerness to live the way that Jesus taught us to live.
One of my favourite stories on this theme is told of a state legislature in Colonial New England. The members were being thrown into a panic by a solar eclipse, because they didn’t know what it was. People were running around here and there, and several members of the legislature moved to adjourn the session because they thought the end of the world was at hand. But one of the speakers stood up and said this: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move, sir, that candles be brought in”. This, I believe, is the true Christian way. Whatever it is that Jesus is asking you to do, make sure you’re busy doing it when he comes back.
So I would encourage you to hold off on the ‘ho ho ho’ for a while yet! Rather, in these next few weeks, take time to ponder the themes of Advent and let them do their work in your life. Remember the Advent message of hope and let it bring light into the world when you find yourself getting overwhelmed by all the bad news in the world. Remember also the message of judgement: examine yourself, and make the changes that are necessary to prepare the way of the Lord in your life. And don’t put it off until tomorrow; remember the message of readiness, and make sure to live each day knowing that it could be the day you see the Lord face to face.