November 29 marks the beginning of the Christian calendar and the start of the Advent season. Decorations have started to go up in my neighbourhood. Christmas music is playing in the malls and my Facebook feed is filling up with creative Christmas craft and baking ideas.
As we mark the first Advent this Sunday, we begin a time of waiting and anticipation, which begs the question - what are we waiting for?
I think the simple answer is the Sunday School answer - Jesus!
Yes, of course, we await the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, our Saviour. His parents, Mary and Joseph, were anticipating the birth of their first child as they journeyed to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem. After the surprise of Mary’s pregnancy, 9 months of waiting was about to come to an end. As we wait, we journey along with them to the birth of God’s son.
But the story is bigger than that. The anticipation is much more dramatic. The birth of Jesus was the combined fulfilment of hope for a whole people. Even though many Jews do not see Jesus as the Messiah, Christians all over the world believe Jesus to be the one the Israelites had been waiting for for thousands of years. We believe that Jesus fulfills the prophecies given throughout the Bible and is the true source of life for the whole world.
Each Advent, we are reminded of those who waited for Jesus, and we too are invited to anticipate the day on which we remember Christ’s birth. But I believe there is more to this story, so again I ask the question, what are we waiting for?
If we were to put ourselves into the shoes of the Jewish people before the arrival of Jesus, we would find a very different kind of anticipation than what we see in our western “Christian” culture. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people had been living under the occupation of the Roman empire for roughly 64 years. Before that, they found themselves under Greek, Persian and Babylonian rule. The Jews were an oppressed people, and the coming of the Messiah was an anticipation of a saviour who would deliver His people out of bondage, similar to God’s deliverance of Israel from the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt.
As the Jews cried out and waited for their Messiah, they were waiting for freedom and deliverance. We see this most clearly in the expectations put on Jesus to pick up the sword and free Israel from Roman rule. Jesus did come preaching freedom and deliverance, but in a very different way than what many Jews expected at that time.
As I think about my own upbringing and what I see in our culture today, most of our anticipation during Advent centres around stuff. We have bought into a consumerist culture that preaches material things as a genuine means of fulfilment. As a child, Christmas meant I got presents. The anticipation to see what I got on Christmas day was enough to keep me up at night.
As I got older, the material stuff was no longer as important, but still, how could you have Christmas without it? Between all the Christmas parties and family gatherings, you are probably going to be required to buy something. Even if we don’t see it as important, most of us still like the feeling of being able to give something to someone and watch for their (hopefully happy) reaction.
If we somehow manage not to buy anything specific for the holiday season, maybe we have told ourselves that Christmas is really a time to be with family, a time for getting together and letting people know that you love one another. As we begin advent, we anticipate the joys of being with family and stuffing ourselves with delicious holiday food.
I don’t want to be a grinch, and I don’t think there is anything really wrong with spending time with family or buying gifts for people, but something has happened between Israel’s anticipation for the birth of the Messiah and our anticipation for the celebration of Christmas. There is a big difference between Israel’s longing for deliverance from oppression and our anticipation for opening gifts and spending time with family.
Clearly, the big difference is that most of us in the western world do not live in oppression. To be honest, most of us can’t even imagine what it is like to live in slavery or under any kind of government system other than a democracy. And so, we have told ourselves that the kind of saving Jesus does for us takes place in the heart. He delivers us from evil and frees us from slavery to sin.
With a spiritualized salvation and no understanding of what it means to live in real oppression, it is no wonder why Christmas has become so commercialized and so much about our own happiness, joy, and family time.
The problem is, however, that there are millions of people who do still live in the same kinds of conditions the Jews did in the days before Jesus (and after Jesus for that matter). There are people all over the world who are stuck in slavery, who are being taken advantage of, who live under the rule of tyrants, who are abused, who live in poverty, whose rights and freedoms are being violated, and who are seen as less than human.
For these people, some of them Christian, the anticipation of the birth of Christ carries with it the hope that they will be freed from whatever kind of oppression they live in. If Jesus can’t provide real hope for the oppressed, then why did He come? Does Christ just give us spiritual hope? As Christians, I hope we believe that God is powerful enough to actually do something about evil. I hope we believe that God is merciful enough to help the poor and the oppressed. But most importantly, I hope we believe that He wants to use us to make this happen.
Like I said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebration or time and love for family. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with our understanding of God’s forgiveness for us and salvation from sin. But the message of Jesus’ birth is much more powerful than we allow it to be. If our anticipation centres around gifts, food, and family time, we have sold the gospel short.
As we begin advent and anticipate the birth of Jesus and His salvation for us, let us remember that there are those who live lives of oppression who await and hope for freedom and transformation. May our celebration fuel in us a fire to be about the work God calls us to in our own neighbourhoods and around the world. May advent be a season of anticipation to see how God will use us to further His kingdom.