by Peter White
To be perfectly honest, one of the (many) things that draws me to the Christian faith is its subversive, counter-cultural, punk-rock quality. I know, “Christian faith” and “punk rock.” But go with me on this.
The contrariness of Christianity might not seem obvious, particularly for those of us in the Bible belt, but I’m thankful for the mentors I’ve had who have helped me pay attention to the stories of the Bible and taught me to listen to them in their own particular space and time.
I think it’s this quality of contrariness that makes the Christian calendar so attractive to me. Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas—living into these seasons is a way of allowing my story to be shaped by God’s story. It puts my Christian faith at odds with the calendar of the Big Box stores that tell me its Christmas as soon as I finish trick-or-treating. Each week in our communion liturgy we remind ourselves of these contrary seasons: Christ has died (Lent), Christ is risen (Easter), Christ is coming again (Advent and Christmas).
Advent is a journey of four weeks—four weeks of waiting and anticipating and hoping that shape us, that remind us that God came into the world at a hopeless moment in the story of Jesus, that he continues to meet us in our hopeless moments, and one day he will bring an end to every hopeless moment forever. It is four weeks that lead us to Christmas Day, and Christmas is a 12-day-long party, celebrating Immanuel, the God Who is With Us, that culminates in Epiphany, also known as the Feast of Lights, and we remember that Jesus is the light in a dark world.
What does it mean for us to live into Advent? To really allow ourselves to be shaped by this story of holy anticipation instead of the cultural story that surrounds of consumption and busyness and hollow nostalgia?
Here are four things that Advent teaches me every year:
Advent teaches me that there is joy in anticipation.
We live in a world that doesn’t do anticipation well. We want what we want right now, and we can have it right now. And technology has made this normal. Because of the internet and my phone, if I have a question, I can have an answer almost instantaneously. If I’m hungry, at any time night or day, I can eat anything I want (with the exception of Chick-Fil-A. It never fails. Somehow I only ever get the idea to eat Chick-Fil-A on Sundays).
We have forgotten the art of waiting. There’s something innately human about desiring without yet having. We have forgotten there is even joy and delight in having to wait for something. Christmas but never Advent (the world of retail around us) is not so much different than Narnia’s “Winter but never Christmas.” The thrill of the roller coaster is amplified by the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of climbing that first hill.
Advent teaches us hope “even though.”
The world is not right. And so, to burst spontaneously into singing songs like “Joy to the World” is either an act of woeful ignorance or defiant faith. In Advent, we take seriously the darkness of the world. During Advent, as the daylight shrinks and the night creeps earlier with every day, we trust that with Christmas Day all of that changes and the light starts to overcome the darkness. This is the season the tide turns.
And so, even though there is mental illness. Even though there are terrorist attacks. Even though there is cancer. Even though people do horrible things to one another, God is mysteriously at work, and God will have the final word.
Advent teaches us that the end of the story proves that God is good and in control.
In Advent, we remember the oldest of human stories: the conflict between light and darkness. And we remember the very first words of God at creation are still spoken into the darkness and hopelessness of the world around us: Let there be light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Though the world around us suffers in pain, it’s not because God had something to do with it, or because God capriciously just lets it happen. In Advent, we remember that God cares and God is coming to act once and for all to put everything right.
Advent teaches us that there is a pattern to the way God has been at work in the world and continues to work in the world.
In the sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica from a few years ago, there was an often repeated line: “This has all happened before, and it’s all happening again.” This is true of God’s story in the Bible, too.
The way that God delivered Israel out of slavery in the Exodus story happened again in the first century in the stories of the Gospels and what God did through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
When I read the Exodus story, I see the blueprint for the story of Advent and Christmas, and I see a hint of how to spot God at work in the world right now. At the beginning of Exodus, the people are in slavery in Egypt, and God is “somewhere out there.” But by the end of the story, 40 chapters later, God has moved right in and now lives right in the midst with the people. God goes from some abstract “other-ness” to next-door neighbor.
Going back to the creation story, humankind was made to thrive in the presence of God, like a sunflower in sunlight. But one of the consequences of humanity’s sin and rebellion was the lost presence of God. The making of the tabernacle, which makes up so much of the tedious detail in the book of Exodus, represents God’s presence once again available to humankind.
There’s this pattern to God in the Exodus story: God sees, God acts, God provides, God forgives, and God moves in. The narrative in Exodus kicks off with this statement: “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:24-25, NIV).
And then it comes to a dramatic conclusion: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34-35).
Compare that to the way that the Gospel of John chooses to start the Jesus story: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory” (John 1:14). Like the Exodus story, the Christmas story is about God acting on behalf of his people to save them by coming to live with them as one of them. This has happened before, and it’s happening again. God is living right among us.
Advent is for remembering that everything is going to be okay in the end. If everything is not okay today, remember that it’s not yet the end. God is coming. Right now is Advent. Christmas is coming. This is the season the tide turns.
Peter White is both a Tulsa native and transplant, having moved away for 9 years and returning 6 years ago. He probably spends too much money supporting the downtown food economy. When not eating within the IDL with his wife, he can be found watching Netflix, whining about the Seattle Mariners’ pitiful offense, reading a theology book, keeping his toddlers from stealing each others’ goldfish crackers, or being a minister of First Methodist. He can be followed on Twitter @thatpeterwhite.
Join us at First Methodist Tulsa during the Advent season, listen to Dr. Wade Paschal’s First Advent sermon here and learn more about worship opportunities during December. Look for the rest of Peter’s seven-part series on Advent beginning Monday, December 7th.