A Case for Advent
Uganda has about ten Christmas songs. Anywhere you go in town or village, you will hear the same ten songs (Holly Holiday, Born on Christmas Day, Jinger [sic] Bells, etc.) over and over again. At Akisyon a Yesu, the staff started the Christmas disc on daily rotation sometime in early November. More recently, members of our mission have been busy putting up Christmas decorations (such as they are here), preparing for the Christmas baking onslaught, and sneaking requests for Christmas hymns in to our mid-week Bible study.
Last week, our mission took its annual retreat and were gifted with a series of sermons from our good friend and fellow missionary, Dr. Dave Eby, on the book of Job. Being, seemingly, the major Scrooge of the mission, my heart leapt at the prospect. Nothing kills the holiday spirit like a good sermon series on Job. Dr. Eby was a wonderful guide through the book, which encouraged us in the unexpected way that only Scripture can, by encouraging us to surrender ourselves and our lives and wait on the Lord in our time of trouble.
As we returned to mission life and work from our week away, I can’t help but think about how appropriate Job is as an advent meditation. Most readings for the season tend to focus on the prophets and New Testament passages related to the second coming of Christ. But beneath those often-read and familiar passages, Job lies like bedrock, like the groundwork upon which all of exalted language of Paul and the prophets is built. The prophetic books and many of the New Testament epistles were written to God’s people struggling to understand the injustice and evil they saw surrounding them in the world. They were written to people needing reassurance of God’s continued gracious activity in the world. They were written to remind sufferers of the promise that, contrary to what their perceptions may have been telling them, God is ruling over all things and bringing them to his own good ends. This, too, is the message of the book of Job, written, by some accounts, before any other book in the Bible.
Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming, a time of inner renewal, a time of looking forward, but perhaps more than anything, it is a time of longing. The Israel of the prophets, mired in exile, longed for the Messiah to come and set the world to rights. In much the same way, Christians long for Christ to come in the fullness of his glory, judge the world, and reign as its rightful king. Meanwhile, we seek to prepare for his coming (indeed, missions is one major outworking of this), but we also long for his appearing.
I am an avid collector of and listener to music. Several years ago, I began to compile playlists thematically dedicated to the various parts of the liturgical calendar. Good Friday has Metallica’s King Nothing next to What Wondrous Love is This; Easter has Bob Marley with Petra and Josh Garrels. But my favorite playlist is Advent. In several years of adding to it and refining it, I have come to see that Advent, more than any other season in the liturgical year, is the time when we cry out together with the world for deliverance. Consider the following lyrical excerpts:
Father can you hear me? How have I let you down?
I curse the day that I was born and all the sorrow in this world
And if there is a god…Who are you this time? Are you one of us, flying blind?
‘Cause we’re down here throwing stones while you’re so far from home
The only way we could ever beat these crooked politician men
Is to cast the moneychangers out of the temple
Put the carpenter in
It’s time for a champion soothe the soul of the land
Mend the heart from the sea and the sand until the sun comes up again
And everybody knows these are rock hard times
I gotta make it through; these are rock hard times
We live in a political world where peace is not welcome at all
It’s turned away from the door to wander some more
Or put up against the wall
I’ve been looking for untangled love but it’s hard to get a handle on
I always hoped I’d see the light break the bad luck in my life
All of these are from musicians working outside the Christian tradition. Christians, it would seem, do not have a monopoly on longing. There is something universal to our creaturely natures that sees the world as it is and cries out. Again, Jeremiah and Paul speak of the whole creation groaning together under the curse of sin. Certainly, the acacia trees and prairie dogs do not understand what they long for, even as our unsaved neighbors would hardly acknowledge that they are desperately waiting for Jesus to return and judge the world (this would be a fearful thought, were it recognized). Nevertheless, the creaturely yearning for the world to be fixed and healed is easy to see.
In bowling over Advent in a race to reach Christmas, we risk leaving the world behind. John says that the Word came into the world and the world did not recognize him. To those not too busy thinking about roasting chestnuts, is there anything sensical about the fuss made over a manger in Bethlehem? Advent is the Church’s chance—like the better impulses of Job’s friends—to sit with a dying world and mourn. It is from this posture of mutual bewilderment that we can best point to the hope of the world, surrounded by shepherds and straw, worshipped by kings and angels. From the dust, we can say, paraphrasing Paul, “What you long for as something unknown, we now proclaim to you.”
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.