Adam and Eve had long since fallen, though sin remained. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had ceased their seeking and wandering, though Israel hadn’t yet found what it was looking for. Joseph’s dreams had faded away into history, though a dream of shalom persisted. The thunder of Mount Sinai had become a distant memory, though the law remained steadfast. The walls of Jerusalem were toppled, though God remained sovereign. The voices of the prophets had been silenced, though their words echoed through generations.
Day after day stretched out across four hundred years of prophetic silence between Malachi and John the Baptist. Men and women would wake up, tend to their worldly duties and their souls however they knew how, raise families, die, and their children would do the same, and their children after them. Night after night, wind whipped sand across the wilderness and the stars watched the evil strivings of people lost without a shepherd.
Where was Israel’s green pasture? Where was Israel’s Good Shepherd? What about God’s promises? Was God’s Prince of Peace ever going to come (Isaiah 9:6)?
We don’t have four hundred years between today and Christmas, only three weeks, but we have been waiting two thousand years for Christ to return. We wait still. Advent is a season of waiting. American consumerism picks up on this. Are we waiting for gifts under the tree? Are we waiting for Santa to descend from the rooftop (or via UPS truck) to deliver the goodies on our Christmas list? Are we waiting for big meals and holiday treats? Are we waiting for family reunions and conversations by a fire?
The light of the birth of Christ shines so brightly, our own consumeristic impulses know better than to try to hide it. Instead, that inchoate sense of anticipation is vulnerable to exploitation. Forget incarnation; holiday moments are cast in saccharine caramelization. Forget good news of great joy; companies bring good news of great savings. Forget all the riches of God; these toys have batteries included. Forget the bread of life; there are cookies, candy, and cakes abundant. Forget living water; the season without snow just isn’t the same. Forget the light of life; how many lights can we tack onto our homes? Forget grace; be good for goodness sake. Buried under all this is a deeper restlessness: when, Lord Jesus? How long? Just as we remember what it must have been like waiting for Emmanuel, we are waiting still for him to return to us and make things right.
Then on December 26, you may feel like you’ve missed something. The “post-Christmas blues” reveals that all those things for which you had been waiting didn’t really fulfill your anticipation as promised. Most shake it off, make some new year’s resolutions, and push the ice block of ennui to the back of their mind until that sense of waiting begins to build again over the next year.
Waiting for God
Our hope, though, does not put us to shame (Romans 5:5). Just look: in time, Jesus did in fact come, and he does save us from sin and death!
We wait, and we wait with the very promises of God. He brought his promises to fulfillment in Jesus, in his own timing; the ancient Israelite couldn’t have known if God would do that within a day, a year, or a thousand years. He also didn’t know what God would do; maybe a mighty military leader? In the same way, this season confuses us such that we sometimes don’t know what we’re waiting for, and we also have the promises of God – the fulfilled promises of God! Here we have them, in Jesus.
We have Jesus, and we’re also waiting. Advent reminds us of how people waited for the first coming of Christ even as we now wait for his return. We remember the darkness of the Fall, of land out of which Abraham was called, of the oppressive slavery of the Israelites, of nights encamped in the wilderness for forty years, of wickedness and exile.
We wait in similar shadows: the darkness of our sin, of land in which we are mere sojourners, of the persecution of Christians around the world, of highly-connected-yet-disconnected nights in urban jungles, of wickedness and exile.
Except! “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). John wrote these words looking back on the ministry of Jesus – writing after the crucifixion of his Lord, and after his resurrection; after all the sureties of the Jewish elders had been up-ended. The darkness has not overcome the light.
Therefore, we may wait in similar shadows, but not in a similar way. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that is, the treasure of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). This light isn’t the light of Hallmark, Disney, or Amazon; it’s not the light of our military, our political ingenuity, or our scientific progress; it’s not the light of our righteousness, our good works, or our wealth; it’s not the light of Duke, UNC, or NC State. No – we carry a treasure that testifies to “the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
What does the surpassing power of God look like, this beautiful light that has shown into the world’s darkness?
It looks like Jesus, born as a baby and crucified as a criminal.
It is a power that allows Paul to write, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
That doesn’t sound like power, and yet, it is the power of God. It is that power upon which we wait. It is that power with which we wait. When you feel overwhelmed this holiday season, when you feel frustrated, sad, lonesome, or anxious, remember that it is this power upon which and with which we wait. You’re also not alone: it is this power upon which and with which we wait.