Last month in my neighborhood, a couple died in a house fire, due in part, to negligent landlords. Last year, our community saw a record number of homicides, and is on pace break that record again this year. A year ago, a family in the neighborhood lost their son in a police shooting. If the season of Advent does not speak into this real life, then all the candles and greens are a waste of our time.
Advent is a journey of four weeks—four weeks of waiting and anticipating and hoping that shape us. They remind us that God came into the world at a hopeless moment in the story of Jesus. They remind us that God continues to meet us in our hopeless moments. They remind us that one day God will bring an end to every hopeless moment forever.
We celebrate Advent because this is God’s great rescue plan, and, as bad as the news around us gets, God is coming.
God is up to something in the world around us, in our neighborhoods. We’ll miss it if we’re not paying attention.
The darkest night of year is coming. But so is God.
Advent is for hope in desperate places
Given the 24-hour news cycle, cynicism and despair are so tempting. Has God given up on us? Did God really make promises to the ancients? Is God a bit naive about how dark the darkness is? Maybe are we too optimistic about what God can actually do about it? Is it all just a made up story? Because the world can be a really terrible place.
In Advent we pull all of our doubts from all the corners they’ve been hiding in over the past year. We drag them out of the shadows of our inner lives. We hang words on them. We speak them out loud. We bring them to the empty manger, brimful of trust that God is coming in the most unexpected and extraordinary way.
Whatever you carry during the holiday season, whatever your community carries—be it tear-stained grief, lonely depression, deflating disappointment, fiery frustration, paralyzing anxiety, soul-crushing sadness—there’s space for it in Advent. There’s no need to hide it. God can handle it. God sees. God knows. God has promised to do something about it.
God’s mission is bringing hope in desperate places.
Advent is for peace in violent places.
Six hundred years before Jesus there was a prophet who proclaimed the word of the Lord. Maybe he screamed. Maybe he shouted. Maybe he lamented:
How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry,
but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
so that justice has become perverted.
These are ancient words, but they feel like they could have come in response to this morning’s newspaper. The world is broken. The world has been broken.
It’s easy for us to miss just how violent the world of the Old Testament was, and just how vulnerable regular people and women and kids were in this world. When we open the pages of 1 Samuel, we find a world mired in darkness and violence. The book of Judges ends on a tremendously hopeless note. The nation is in disarray. The religious institution is corrupt and ineffective.
In this world, a barren woman prays out to God in anguish. The priest assumes she’s drunk. God hears her. God responds to her. She celebrates. And with her son Samuel, God puts in motion events that lead Israel from its chaos to the golden age of David. This song she sings becomes the lens through which we read the stories of 1 and 2 Samuel.
God’s mission is bringing peace in violent places.
Advent is for love in hateful places.
As Luke tells the story, as the New Testament begins, the situation is not that unlike the days of Hannah and Samuel. The nation is in disarray. The religious institution is corrupt and ineffective. But there are people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, Joseph and Mary, who cry out to God.
Can you imagine being there? Has God given up on us? Did all those stories about Abraham and Moses and David really happen? Is God really competent to do something about the Roman legions, the oppressive oxymoron pax romana–”the peace of Rome”?
Read the songs of Hannah and Mary side by side. Some think Luke is making an explicit connection between the songs of these incredible women. They both defiantly shout into the darkness that God’s love is coming to make everything right.
Likewise, Zechariah—whose story with barren Elizabeth here parallels Abraham and Sarah—gives voice to the love of God infiltrating the messed up world. The two songs in the opening chapter of Luke tell us everything that’s going to happen throughout this Gospel and also Acts. They function like little teaser trailers. The morning sun melting the darkness. The proud brought low and the humble exalted. God reversing the trajectory of human history. In Advent, include the song of Zechariah among your morning prayers and the song of Mary among your evening prayers.
God’s mission is bringing love in hateful places.
Advent is for joy in the anxious places.
Embracing the seasons of Advent and Christmas, living into and being shaped by the story, reminds us that we live in the messy middle of the beginning of the end. The birth of the baby in the manger is the beginning of the end of Adam’s world.
Advent is for anticipating the second coming of Jesus. As he came before, he’s coming again. He entered a desolate, hopeless world and healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgive sins, raised the dead, pronounced judgment on the oppressors and the corrupt. Imagine what happens when he enters our broken and weary world?
I like performing weddings because I get to say, “This is how the world ends.” As Christians tell the story, the story ends not in barren wastelands but rather with nervous butterflies, reckless celebration, unhinged laughter, beautiful tears, and all the excessive joy that comes with a wedding.
Our culture tells a joyless end of the story. This is not the way Scripture portrays the end of Adam’s world. The images scattered throughout the New Testament are pictures of an extravagant wedding and a wild party. Perhaps this is why John, the author of Revelation, in the Gospel that bears his name portrays Jesus’ first miracle making sure a wedding party doesn’t stop. The end of bad news is good news.
The word “apocalypse” literally means “revealing.” Advent, our on-ramp to Christmas, starts training our eyes to see and our ears to hear where God might be hiding in plain sight in front of us. In Advent, God is revealed to us in the most unexpected and surprising ways. This is the story we get to tell around our dinner tables, on our front porches, along our sidewalks, and in our coffee shops.
God’s mission is bringing joy in anxious places.
We need the hope, peace, love, and joy of Advent because the world around us is full of despair, violence, hate, and anxiety. We need Advent because the world needs Advent.
In this season, there’s a better story at work than ugly sweaters, twinkle lights, wish lists, marshmallow worlds, and shelved elves. The anguished cry of every human heart is getting answered. Everything that is deep goodness will be put back in its right place.
God is coming, as promised, to finally put everything right.
O Lord, come back to us! How long will you delay? Take pity on your servants! (Psalm 90:13).
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