Advent: Waiting on Christ(mas)

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

Adding just one more peculiar occurrence to the ever-growing list that has come to characterize 2020, I have many friends—myself included—who simply could not wait to decorate for Christmas. With the unique challenges this year has brought through stress, isolation, sickness, and general unrest, I believe this anticipation and desire to bring Christmas “early” reflects a broader desire for people to have a little hope and joy. Though Christmas day, of course, will come no quicker for all of our early decorating, it really is this hope and anticipated joy that I believe inspires so many people who eagerly wait for Christmas.

The anticipation we feel in waiting for Christmas is nothing compared to what the Israelites felt after hundreds of years of God‘s silence. While the transition between the Old and New Testaments for us as modern believers happens as quickly as the turn of a page from Malachi to Matthew, the actual transition from Malachi to Matthew was much longer: 400 years!

As we are reminded in Hebrews, God’s way of speaking to the Israelites in past times (before the birth of Christ) was often through the prophets. After the deaths of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, though, God seemingly goes quiet. It is in this seeming silence from God that the Israelites lived for 400 years, during which they are again subjected to the rule of yet another godless oppressor: the Roman Empire. Even during the pain of their oppression and in the many long years of waiting, God remains silent.

The Israelites were not altogether lost in despair during this time, though. Some believed that God would break His silence soon enough and come to save Israel from its plight. As Christians, we have historically honored this time of waiting and expectation of God’s return to Israel, in what we now know would culminate in the Incarnation and birth of Christ, as a season we call “Advent.” Incarnation is a theological term Christians use to describe when God in Christ takes on human flesh. Advent is therefore a season that most Christians see as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ and a symbol of Christ’s future return.

As we enter into a season of Advent, we should ask ourselves two questions: what are we waiting for and what will it look like when it has come?

It is easy for us to answer these questions as modern believers with the ability to look back through the Scriptures. We are waiting for Emmanuel, God with us; the Messiah; a Redeemer who will deliver us; a King whose reign will never end. We are waiting for Christ the Lord.
If we could put ourselves in the shoes of a first-century Israelite, though, we would quickly realize that when Christ comes, He does not look exactly like what they were expecting. The Israelites were expecting an earthly king or a militant revolutionary who would throw off the oppressive rule of the Romans. Certainly, the cries of righteous war and victory for Israel over its enemies would be one way for God to break His silence. If not these voices, perhaps the voice of another prophet would break the silence?

Yet God, when He speaks again bursting through the silence of 400 years, He does not do so through another prophet, or a military leader or the type of King Israel was expecting. He breaks the silence with His own voice, with the cries of a baby, the person of Jesus Christ. God and man, humanity and divinity commingled, Christ wrapping humanity’s injured flesh around Himself, sharing in our toil and trouble, a Savior come to rob us of our sins, all in the body of one baby. This is what it looks like when God enters into our humanity and world.
While it is easy for us to be critical of the Israelites who did not recognize Him, would most of us have recognized Him? After all, Isaiah prophesied, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2).

When God arrives into a sinful and wretched world, He doesn’t announce Himself through royal parades or between the golden candlesticks and pillars so loved in religious ceremonies. When God comes near to humanity, He comes near to us more humbly than we would expect. He stoops down into our humanity in the Person of Christ. Even as He grew older and began ministering publically, the majority of the religious and political leaders still could not recognize Him. He simply did not fit into the mold of what they believed God should look like.

When Christ comes to us in the form of a man, he does not come as a comfort to the rich, the powerful, and the royal. In fact, these people, from the moment they hear of His birth try to kill him. Christ disrupts their power structures and therefore threatens their comfort and self-indulgence. Rather, when Christ comes we see Him enter into solidarity with the lowly, the poor, the outcast, and the criminal. His birth is not heralded by earthly courtiers but amid the sounds of a stable and by shepherds. Though in a few years He will receive gifts worthy of His royal status as King, He is not widely lauded but rather contents Himself even as a young man to linger in the Temple and teach.

One day when He dies, it is not a king’s death, but the death of a criminal. He doesn’t lie in state for all to see but in a tomb that wasn’t even His. We see God not in the reflections of the rich, the powerful, and the royal but in the poor, lowly, and the criminal: not because He Himself shares the inherent qualities of these categories but because these are the ones with whom He chooses to identify, to enter into solidarity, and to associate. These are those to whom He gives His time and alongside whom He gives His life. It is not to the religious leaders or the political leaders or the royalty of the day that He promises that they will join Him in Heaven but a criminal, beside whom He Himself—Lord of the Universe—hangs on a tree.

When you are looking to see God moving during this season of advent, remember that the ways and places in which He moves are often not those we are expecting. You will not find Him in the kings and power structures of this world. You will not find him in the ornamentation of high religion, in golden candlesticks and shiny presentations. You may likely find him in the least, the last, and the lowly, with whom He spent so much time during His ministry.

If we want to be like Christ, one of the most important lessons we learn from the Incarnation is that we are called to be humble and to love those around us well. To be like Christ in His Incarnation is to be a better man or woman to your neighbors, to the least, the last, and the lowly. While the Christmas decorations are nice, I hope that the joy they bring to you is in their ability to help you remember the birth of Christ. I hope that this Advent season you celebrate and live out that hope, not only through much-loved traditions and small indulgences but also through how you love those around you, even if it means suffering humbly beside them during this season. I pray that as you read the Christmas story this year, it will not be a simple literary experience but rather that through the power of the Holy Spirit, as you read it you would be made more like Christ in His Incarnation, that you would be made a better person in community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving, the human God.
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