The word advent means an arriving or an appearing. It's the arrival of something we hoped for, something we anticipated. It's when something we had predicted finally happens. God brought about the Advent of his son in a way that was different from how we expected it to be. We expected a warrior. We expected someone to come with great military power and dramatic flair to solve all of our problems. But God came in utmost obscurity. He came to a man and a woman who were first migrants and then refugees. His first cries would have ricocheted off a stonewall in the back of a cave and startled dumb beasts. It wasn't the Advent we were expecting; it was the Advent we needed. God came into our littleness, our lostness, and our wondering, Does anybody care? Do I matter in any way?
I want to talk about how God meets us in our sorrow. I want to talk about the meaning of Advent and how God meets us uniquely in the whole range of our human experience—the good, the bad, the bright, the dark, the up, the down. This is the meaning of Advent. How good it is that he didn't appear as we had anticipated—as a coming warrior—but instead as a child, the little one, the crucified one. It's Good News for those of us who sometimes feel the weight of simply living.
There's a passage in Isaiah 53 that's absolutely magnificent. The prophet Isaiah—powered by the Holy Spirit—forecasts the coming of the Messiah 800 years before it happens. It's tragic that the Jewish people didn't understand this particular text about the coming of Christ, because it is the premier passage indicating that the coming Messiah will not show up with the military prowess they are expecting. Instead, Isaiah says he will come as a suffering servant. In Isaiah 53:3 the prophet describes the life of Christ and his crucifixion. "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not."
One of the beautiful things about Isaiah 53 is that it combines the beginning with the end in terms of Jesus' ministry and his Advent. It combines the cradle and the manger with the cross. It combines the Incarnation—God coming to us in human form—with redemption, God using his presence with us to pull us out of our sin. Advent and atonement, appearing with forgiving, are all packed into this incredibly rich passage.
The man of sorrows, familiar with suffering
Jesus was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering or pain. The word familiar is from yada, a Hebrew word that has a wide range of meanings. In this particular context it means Jesus had intimate, firsthand experience with pain and suffering. He wasn't just taking notes on our pain! God in Christ actually experienced our sorrow and suffering. He was no stranger to what we go through. He has tasted it. He has firsthand experience. The Good News is simply this: there is no valley of the shadow of death that any of us can go through that God in Christ hasn't already gone through before us, mapping out the terrain and then walking alongside of us. What good news that we did not get the Messiah we had been hoping for but the Messiah of God's choosing, this man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.
The story of Lazarus in John 11 is an episode in the life of Jesus that illustrates this man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. This story shows us how Jesus sometimes allows us to taste sorrow, yet he enters into it with us. In verse 4, Jesus hears the news that his friend Lazarus is sick, and he tells his disciples, "The sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." In the midst of this imminent sorrow, Jesus offers words of comfort. Today, as we contemplate things that might be very painful to us, Jesus comes and offers words of comfort. He says: This isn't what you think it is. This isn't going to end the way you think it's going to end. I'll be glorified. God will be glorified. It's all good!
But in verse 6, the story starts to take a different turn. When they hear Lazarus is sick, Jesus stays where he is for two more days. This delay proves tragic. Even though Jesus offers words of consolation, he fails to act and precipitates more suffering, more sorrow. In verse 16, Jesus is ready to go to Bethany where Lazarus lives. Thomas says, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Thomas understands that following Jesus, a man of suffering familiar with sorrow, is a risky business—there may be words of consolation along the way, but a commitment to following Christ sometimes puts us in the way of danger and sorrow.
I don't know how long you've been following Jesus, but you'll find that when Christ calls us, he's not always calling us to things that are safest, easiest, or least painful. You imagine him saying, "I'm going to go and chart the course so that every step you take is going to be upward, onward, blessing upon blessing." But he often charts a course that initially has us thinking, Why there? Why that? Could you pick something easier? Could you pick something that involves less sacrifice and less danger for us all? But Jesus often goes in those places where our response needs to be Thomas-like.
John 11:32 says, "When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'" As far as Mary can see, Jesus has stalled. He has failed to act in an appropriate or timely manner. As a result, he's brought more sorrow upon this family, and Mary is rancorous with blame.
Have you ever had this kind of prayerful dialogue with Jesus? If you haven't, keep moving toward the level of intimacy with Jesus in which you sometimes say, "What was that about? If you would have done this, if you would have acted accordingly, if you had listened to my instructions, Jesus, we could have had this one solved. But you botched! You bungled it, and now look where we are!" I love the honesty of Mary. In Luke 10, Mary is the one who gets the high praises of Jesus when she is sitting at Jesus' feet, listening, while Martha's grumpy in the kitchen. But here Mary's the bitter one. There's a sense that the intimacy we have with God makes us a little more vulnerable to disappointment with God. Mary is saying: I thought we had a different kind of relationship here! Remember when I used to sit and listen to you? I thought there was something implied in that kind of relationship, that closeness—that you were going to deliver what I asked of you and give me the desires of my heart. What happened here?
John 11:33 introduces a new phase of the story: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled." Jesus steps into the sorrows and suffering of others. Rather than standing aloof, saying, "Listen—I told you this is all going to end well," Jesus sees the grief of the sisters and the friends and he steps into that grief. He begins to taste what they're tasting. He is a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.
Jesus' identification with their sorrow deepens in John 11:35 and 38: "Jesus wept … Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb." Not only does Jesus step into the suffering of others, he goes through some of his own. Jesus experiences the very grief he is observing. He's saying: I cannot stand aloof from that. I am a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. You're so overcome. Life can be so ugly and brutal and random sometimes. I know what that's like. I feel it in my bones. I am deeply moved.
Jesus has allowed sorrow into people's lives, entered into that sorrow, and tasted his own sorrow. In John 11:39-44, he finally acts in the way we hoped he would act. He says, "Take the stone away! Let him come out!" Jesus then calls forth Lazarus from the grave. Now we see that Jesus enters our sorrow so that he might pull us out, bringing both an answer and consolation into our sorrow.
Then an interesting thing happens in John 12:10. Sorrow starts all over again! By raising Lazarus from the dead—which dramatically demonstrated how Jesus not only enters into but also overcomes sorrow—Jesus has put Lazarus in danger. People want Lazarus' head. There's a certain cycle in following Jesus: a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering will sometimes allow sorrow to come into your life. I don't understand the mystery of that, but it's true. Jesus will taste it with you. He will then bring consolation in a way that only he can. But if we're really intent on following him, we're not out of the woods until we get home. We continue to walk in sacrifice and risk with such a Savior.
Becoming attainers and anticipators
The reality of Christ's embracing us in our sorrow and suffering has two points of application, both from the Book of Philippians. In Philippians 3:10, Paul says, "I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead." Paul says Christ comes alongside of us—and we alongside Christ—in our times of sorrow and loss. In so doing, we become "attainers" to the Resurrection. Does that mean we earn the Resurrection? Of course not! It means we begin to value the meaning of resurrection as we walk alongside a Savior who is with us in our sorrow, in our loss, in our sadness, and in our suffering. We begin to understand the value of what it is to be a people who live in the hope of resurrection. We see that our pain has an ultimate answer in the reality of resurrection.
Because of a Savior who draws near to us, we also become anticipators of heaven. Later in Philippians 3, Paul says we eagerly expect a Savior who is coming to transform our lowly bodies to be like his. You've often heard the pithy statement: you don't want to be so heavenly-minded that you're of no earthly good. That idea is completely bogus! People who are heavenly-minded actually are of earthly good. Paul says it's the people who are earthly-minded—whose god is their stomach and whose mind is on earthly things—who become useless to both earth and to heaven.
There's something about this God who comes near to us—whose Advent shows a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. As he walks alongside of us, entering into and tasting the sorrow that is part of our journey through earth, he sharpens our instinct and anticipation that though this life has its good moments, it is not enough. We get a growing hunger—an anticipation of things unseen, things yet to be, things hoped for. We get a deepening love for the Savior who has promised resurrection, a resurrection we eagerly anticipate because one day we get to be with him in heaven where we will be transformed to be like him. My exhortation to you is to be that kind of an attainer and anticipator as you walk through this journey.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.