The calendar year begins the first of January. But the Christian year begins late in November with the season of Advent. For four weeks before Christmas, Christians look forward to the 'advent' or 'coming' of the Lord.
That makes us very much like the Jewish people at the time of Jesus. Like us, they deplored the state of the world. For us, it is the threat of terrorist attacks, persistent enmity in the Holy Land, corruption in many world governments, rampant hunger in the Horn of Africa, or insane gunmen who mow down innocent children in a school or a youth camp. In our personal lives too, we lose our dearest friends and relatives. Many see their children go astray. Our own lives may be cut short.
For the Jews in Jesus' day, it was the terrorism of the 'sicarii,' the 'knifemen' and the cruel oppression of Rome. In their personal lives it was the incurable disease of leprosy, or it was a life blighted by blindness or demon possession, which no doctor of the day could cure. It was the death of little daughters and sons as well as the grinding poverty of everyday life.
What they sighed for was the coming of the Lord. True, they had returned to their land centuries before under Nehemiah and Ezra, but were they not really still in a kind of exile? The kingdom, the rule of God through his servant David, had not been restored. The prophetic vision of shalom, peace and plenty, still seemed an unattainable goal.
Had Isaiah, for example, not spoken of the coming One on whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest and prophesied that 'the wolf would dwell with the lamb' in the 'holy mountain' of God? Had he not proclaimed that the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord 'as the waters covered the sea?' (Isaiah 11:1-9).
Today we too echo the cry of ancient Israel:
When comes the promised time
That war shall be no more;
Oppression, lust, and crime,
Shall flee Thy face before?¹
So during Advent, Christians long for the coming of the kingdom or rule of God. We long for every wrong to be put right, for every tear to be dried, and for the new heaven and the new earth in which we shall live in our resurrection bodies, free forever from disease and death.
So has nothing changed? Are we no better off than ancient Israel at the time of Isaiah or those first-century Jewish people in the time of Jesus?
Of course, everything has changed! The Kingdom has come! It has already come in Jesus, Immanuel, 'God with us.' The very Word or Son of God has already come. But He has come 'veiled in flesh.' He has come incognito. The rule of God is present in Him, but like treasure hidden in a field, a seed sown in the earth, or a hidden pearl. It has not yet come in glory and power. That was because of God's mercy. Had the Kingdom come in glory and judgment, we would all have been destroyed like a rotten old barn, riddled with woodworm, which had to be burned.
So God came incognito. He came hidden as a man hanging on a Roman gibbet in agony, facing ultimate despair. He came to take our condemnation that we might receive God's forgiveness and share in His resurrection and eternal shalom.
So as Christians observe the Advent season today, we do so in hope! True, gunmen and terrorists still stalk our world; hunger destroys the lives of hundreds of thousands; oppression, injustice, and corruption haunt us and poverty and disease threaten millions. But God has come among us in Jesus, and God is at work as the Holy Spirit who is bringing thousands daily to faith in Him. God is at work in His Church in mission, making a difference to millions of lives around the world. 'God is working His purpose out,' as one Advent hymn reminds us, 'as year succeeds to year.'²
The Advent season reminds us that Christians live ''between the times.'
The Kingdom has already come in Jesus. But it has not yet come in glory and power. We still share in the suffering of the world as Jesus did.
So let's not be too quick to rush on to sing our Christmas carols! The Christmas season has not yet come. It begins (according to tradition) on the 25th of December and continues for 12 days after that. That is when we sing our Christmas carols. But Advent is the time to sing the great hymns of longing and looking forward: 'O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.'
The bright lights of Christmas will only carry their full meaning if we go through the darkness of the Advent season which resonates with the fear of coming judgment and the hope of coming redemption.
At Advent, the Christian year gives us an opportunity in our worship and in our prayers to share in the suffering and longing of the world. But we do so as heralds of the One who is the only hope.
Thomas A. Noble is professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City and Senior Research Fellow in theology at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, England.
1. Lewis Hensley (1824-1905), 'Thy Kingdom Come, O God.'
2. Arthur Campbell Ainger (1841-1919), 'God is Working His Purpose Out.'
Believers go through the waiting of Advent to get to the joy of Christmas.
Charles Wesley wrote one of the greatest of the Advent hymns, one which thrills with the trepidation of Advent hope and expectation:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand, thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train;
God appears on earth to reign.
Holiness Today, November/December 2011
Please note: This article was originally published in 2011. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.