Recently, I was asked to preach for my pastor while he was on vacation. I never take that responsibility lightly, so when I was offered that opportunity, I prayed about it for a few days and decided that this would be a beautiful opportunity to speak the words God has been laying on my heart for a while now.
So, this past Sunday, I took to the pulpit and talked about an issue that I never really heard much about in Baptist circles until I went to the University: Advent.
I remember growing up in a Southern Baptist tradition very similar to the one in which I am now a Student Ministries Director, so Advent was something that was virtually never talked about in my church. I knew it existed, because my Grandparents and Mother came from a catholic tradition. I remember the fancy wreath with pink and purple and white candles, I remember the Jesus-less manger scene that sat on her cabinet (we all knew that baby Jesus was just hiding underneath a wooden panel until Christmas eve, where he would be born and all would be right with the world.) I remember the advent calendars with chocolate inside each of the days.
It was, like many other things I’d experienced in the catholic church, steeped in tradition, which explains why the non-liturgical denominations avoided such displays (though we had our own traditions we clung to without thought.)
So I never expected for such an idea to permeate my own holiday traditions, until I really took the time to understand its significance.
Advent is the four weeks before Christmas where Christians prepare for celebrating the birth of Jesus by remembering the longing of the Jews for a Messiah. In Advent, we’re reminded of how much we need a Savior, we are reminded that our lives are meaningless without Christ and we look forward to his birth, while understanding it in the past tense, and looking forward to the future, where he will return again.
Advent deals with themes like expectation, longing, and repentance. It is the cry of a heart for the most true and beautiful thing that human history has ever offered us: Christ. And it’s in his fulness that our emptiness is satiated.
I thought a lot before preaching the sermon about scripture to use. There was always the obvious, the birth narrative in Luke, but I wanted to talk about more than just the story, to speak beyond the story and highlight the themes of repentance, of expectation, of the hope we find in our longing for God in the flesh.
So after much prayer and deliberation and external processing to whoever would listen, I landed on the first chapter of John. An unconventional way of viewing it, but John’s Gospel presents a theological view of the deity of Christ and that is what I wanted to bring out.
Here are some adapted notes from my sermon:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Our words are how we explain our thoughts, which spills over into our actions. In a way, our words are how we reveal ourselves to others. Without words, it is extremely hard to be known. In the same way, calling Jesus the “Word that was from the beginning” is like saying that Jesus is God’s revealing of his mind, of himself, of his love for the world. He is the Word that existed before, the Divine Logos. God’s revelation of his heart.
John then uses an image of Christ being the light, something that makes the darkness disappear (how appropriate that Jesus is portrayed as being born at night.) A single light born in a world of dark that didn’t understand him. This brings to mind our sin, our brokenness, the fact that what was coming into the world at Christ’s birth was God, revealing his own thoughts on our brokenness, showing that he came to earth wrapped in skin to bring light into our darkness and save us from our sin.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
There is an invitation here, to know Christ and his fullness, to see what God had in mind from the world from the beginning, before we chose to disobey. God was here to walk with his people and talk with his people and adopt them as Children.
I love the phraseology here, “he gave [them] the right to become children of God.” This implies something beautiful, that we have been adopted into God’s family. That he is our Father, and as such, we inherit everything that he possesses. His righteousness trumps our vain attempts to “be good.” It’s not about trying to keep all the rules anymore, but accepted what our Father has given us. The rest of the world may not understand the Light, but we do because we are Children of the Light. By God’s grace, we are not cursed to carry the full weight of the Law on our shoulders.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John drops his use of metaphor at this final point. Before, he called Jesus things like “word” and “light” which are beautiful images of his nature, but here, the gloves are off. Jesus is no longer an abstract thought, but flesh. Living and breathing. A baby who the world had no room for sleeping in a place full of stinky animals and laying in a trough they ate from. There is blood, sweat, loud noises. The imagery is powerful, and the truth of it really cuts to the heart: God is here and he is wrapped in skin. The answer to the ugly, bloody, messy, broken system of the world, the darkness that covers up the light, is contained in this one baby who would grow up and die on a cross for our sins, so we could be free and receive “grace upon grace.”
God in skin. All of his majesty, prestige, and fame, reduced to our level. He stepped into a messed up world, and what a messed up world it is. Turn on the news and you see it. Be involved in any real relationship and you see it. Something is broken, but in Christ, God came to make it right by becoming one of us and taking on all of our sin and bearing it away.
This is the hope of Advent, this is the reason for celebrating, this is where celebration turns solemn, and praise God that it is. Whether you’re Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Non Denom, or whatever. Advent doesn’t have to be dressed up with calendars and wreaths and whatnot to be relevant. It is the anticipation that all that is wrong in this world will one day be made right at the feet of Jesus.
If the entire Bible were a piece of music, the Gospel is it’s crescendo, the point at which the volume gradually increases. In the Old Testament, His acts of creation, punishment, and redemption showed the character of God, his patience on Israel declares his grace, the prophets pointed to the coming of a time when God would uninhibitedly show the world who he was. And in this moment, Christ’s birth, the beginning, where we go from a soft hum to a loud blast that comes to a startling stop when Jesus shouts “IT IS FINISHED” from the cross, and swells again as he rises again, in these moments, he reveals himself in all of his splendor.
So when we celebrate Advent, we are preparing ourselves for God to unleash the Gospel on us in full force. We come repentant, we come expecting God to do something great. We know that it has happened in the past, but we wait expectantly and celebrate God’s lovingkindness in our hearts and eagerly wait, expectant, for Jesus to come again.
And so Advent, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, bears significance in the life of the Christian, because the things that mark these holidays don’t end.