December is a month that raises all kinds of feelings for us. Some really look forward to this time. For others there are things that we dread going into December. One of the things I most look forward to is special time. Special time to worship, special time with family that I haven't had a chance to see very much, and special time with friends. I am one of those sorts of people, maybe it's my pessimism, but I have some things I dread during December. One of the things I most dread is the task of gift buying. I'm not trying to be a Scrooge, I don't think gift buying is a bad thing, I don't think you have to stop gift buying, I just don't like it very much. I don't feel like I'm very good at it and I don't like going out into the mall to do the gift shopping. You know what I mean?
I was at Costco the other day; I thought it would be a pleasant time to spend with my beautiful wife. It felt like getting into the parking lot there was a force field of tension. We got there and we got the shopping cart that wanted to keep pulling left. We had all this stuff to buy for our Thanksgiving celebrations and the cart was really heavy and it kept wanting to go 90 degrees left, so the whole time I was pulling it back to go right. When we were finished we were in this really long line at the checkout and I was already irritated and there was this woman behind me that kept bumping me with her cart, as if bumping me was going to get us through the line faster. There is this sense in December in which there is a lot of hurry going on and it's hard not to get caught up in that hurry. Our hearts seem to race.
That's not the worst part of it for me. The worst part of it is just this terrible sense in my own heart in which I am not going to get the right gift. It's like there are people in your world that you love and that deserve something that is befitting of somebody who is very precious in your life, and I have this deep sense of angst in my heart that I am going to present them a gift and they're going to say, "Did it come with a gift receipt?"
In the midst of searching on the Internet I have found something that I think will make someone in my life feel very special. It's an Advent calendar made by—get this—Porsche. Every day in the month has a very special gift for the person that you love. So for instance, there is a designer watch made of 24-karat gold. There is a remodeled kitchen in it, so I know that my wife would like the remodeled kitchen. Up in the upper left hand corner on the 28th, you get an 8-foot yacht. Porsche really is making these, and there are only five of them made. One of the advertising taglines is "the only thing you won't find in this is chocolate." Chocolate is what you normally find in Advent calendars. All you husbands out there, if you haven't found the right thing for your wife, rush home today and get it soon because there are only a few of them being made.
Obviously this is a bit extreme. It's a materialism on steroids sort of thing, but it does raise the question for us all. In a season of gift buying and gift giving, what is the gift that you most seek? In the midst of your seeking out in the world and opening the doors of calendars, what is it that you think will make you or your family most happy? What is it that will satisfy the longing of your heart? In the church world, these four weeks leading up to Christmas is referred to as the season of Advent. It's been that way since the 6th Century. Advent simply means "coming" or "arrival." It means that somebody is coming into our world. We have all sorts of traditions in the church world that help us prepare for a coming.
For many of us, there are a lot of people coming into our world in December. There are out of town family and friends, there's party guests from your neighborhood or from work. There's a lot of preparation that will go into welcoming those people who are coming. I think one of the questions that we might want to ask during Advent is whose coming will we spend the most energy preparing for? Which will mean the most to us? The message of Advent is that God, like a King, is coming to our world. God is coming to us.
The coming of a King
Is it possible that we could really celebrate God coming into our world? When you open your eyes and look at the things that are going on all around us, is it possible for a sane person to celebrate the reality of God's presence at work in the details of our world? There are so many things misplaced in our world, so out of order. We could talk about a failing economy, and some of us deeply feel the impact of that failing economy. Or you read whatever web page you read to gather your news, and there is violence and war on all parts of the globe. Or maybe more personally in the quiet of our hearts we feel like we're all alone in the world. Even surrounded by a gathering of people, even if you're part of a church community, even part of a small group gathering, it's possible to feel very alone, it's possible to feel in the midst of that like God is silent, like God maybe has left the house.
I want to say that all of these dynamics are resident in the biblical story. Israel was a nation who in their past had known great wealth, but that was a long time ago in the golden age, back when David was king. Those were the days when things were good. The Israelites always wondered when they would return to the days when their economy is really pumping again. But they had known deep pain in their economic world, a subsistence world that they lived in. They had known the pain of violence and war as large country after large country came and conquered them, domesticated them, took their money and their resources from them. They'd known the pain of God's silence. By the time we get to the New Testament, there is this deep sense in Israel in which even though we have this awareness, this identification as God's people, there is this deep sense in which God has stopped speaking. Sure, he spoke a long time ago in these prophetic books, but he is not really speaking anymore.
This is the story that the New Testament is set in, and we're going to look at Luke's gospel this morning. In the midst of that deep pain and that deep darkness, Luke's gospel tells us that God sends his angel Gabriel, first to a couple named Elizabeth and Zechariah. If you don't know the story, Zechariah is an old man, he is at least 40. He's really, really old. He's probably older than that. The story tells us that his wife is barren. It says that Zechariah is a holy man, that he's actually a priest, someone with esteem. It says that Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous people that walked in the way of God. There was an emptiness in their being because Elizabeth could not bear a child. Now, in those days that would cause a deep sense of wondering on many fronts.
They probably wondered who would take care of them in their old age. I think there might have been a deep sense that maybe they did something wrong. Maybe not being able to have a child meant that God was angry with them, that God had cursed them. The story tells us that in mercy this miraculous thing happens and this angel Gabriel comes to Elizabeth and Zechariah and says essentially that God has heard every prayer that you have ever uttered and held in your heart, and God is not angry with you. God has not withheld his goodness from you. He is present to you and in fact you will bear a son.
That's just the first installment. God goes on from there, six months later he sends his angel to Mary who is a young peasant girl. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary. Mary is troubled by this greeting. It says actually that she is exceedingly troubled by what is going on. She is troubled because an angel has appeared to her and by all accounts that is a little bit of a freak-out. It's not the thing that's happening day by day to the average person.
She is also troubled because the kind of greeting that comes to her absolutely blows her mind. One scholar translates the greeting, "Hail, fair lady." It's a formal, almost regal greeting. If you came from a Catholic tradition, "Hail, Mary." It's a salute to someone who is an important person, to a person who is in authority. And Mary is confused by this, it blows her mind. She must have thought, Lady, who are you calling lady? I am just a peasant girl. Maybe she was 14 or even just 13 years old. The angel corrects her and says, "No, God 's favor, God's grace is upon you." Now, that word "favor" or "grace," the original language essentially means that there is a gift for you. There is a gift from God that is coming to you. We learn about this gift as we read on.
In verse 30 it says, "The angel says to her, 'Don't be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a Son. You are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.'" Mary is to give birth to a son and he would be "Son of the Most High." This is Luke's favorite designation for the person of God. The angel goes on to say that this Son would ascend to the throne of David and would rule over a kingdom that has no end. Now, we should acknowledge, if you read this story to someone who had never heard the story before, it sounds a little bit like a fairy tale, doesn't it? Here is a young peasant girl, and the angel comes to her and says, "No, you're not a peasant girl, you're actually a princess." This is the culmination of Israel's greatest hope. This story is the culmination of Israel's deepest held longing. It is the gift that they long for with all their heart and soul and mind and strength.
The promise of hope
Israel always longed for a righteous king. A king who would rule as if he was God himself. One who would rule in righteousness. Who would see that the widow and the orphan, the foreigner, the immigrant, everyone who was on the outside would have access to the good things, the good blessings of the kingdom. This kingdom would be a place of mercy. At times here and there they had kings that ruled in that way sort of, but it was just for seasons of time. Mostly they had kings who were severely compromised. Many of the kings were cowards and sought their own good over their people's good. Many of them sacrificed even their own young for the sake of wealth that they could gather. If you read the Old Testament prophetic books, you understand that Israel, even though they were a people who were to have lived in God's way, they were a people who were deeply entangled in idolatry and materialism. They walked outside of the way of God. They lost sight of the goodness of God. Because of their decisions the people were disciplined, they were sent away in slavery and exile, they lived as a people in captivity. The longing of their hearts even in captivity was for a great king to come and to rescue them out of their captivity and restore the way of God and the goodness of God.
In the midst of their darkest days their hope was lifted up by these prophetic promises that you read all throughout the Old Testament. Micah 5:2-5 says this to a people who were in exile and captivity, "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah," speaking to a whole tribe of people, "though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites." So there is a prophecy about a time when Israel would be brought back from captivity to its homeland and this great king would be restored to lead the people. And it says this is verses four and five about this great king, "He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they [the people of God] will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be our peace."
This is the ancient hope of Israel. When times were darkest, when life was hitting rock bottom, the prophets would urge the people never, ever to lose hope because one day this king would come and the people of God, like sheep, would be well fed and all their enemies would be driven away and they would live in peace. This angel, Gabriel, is coming to Mary during this time of deep darkness in their lives, during this time of severe oppression, during this time of great silence from God and says "The day is now, the day of God's coming to you is now. And just like in the days of Moses the very presence of God would overshadow the tent of meeting where Moses would meet with God, so God's presence is going to overshadow you in such a way that you give birth." It's an extraordinarily strange tale. There is no way that when we read the story it cannot blow us away. But this thing that God does, bringing birth to a young virgin girl, it is the great statement of hope that no matter what our limitations and no matter how destructive the world around us, God does have power to create something new, to bring something good, to shed his light in those dark places. It is a word of hope in the midst of a world that is decaying.
We are still in captivity
The Scriptures paint a picture that Mary's story is in fact our story, if we could open our eyes and walk into it. The Scriptures tell us that just as Israel was captive to Roman oppressors, our whole cosmos, the entire world in which we live, is captive to the destructive power of sin. It doesn't matter what culture you're a part of, there is no human life untouched by the power of sin. I wonder in the midst of all of our busyness, in the midst of all of the preparing and getting ready for Christmas, when we slow down if we don't feel it in one way or another. Are you aware, in the midst of all that is going on around you, about the destructive power of sin in your life? Maybe you feel it with regard to the violence that's going on in the world. Maybe you don't experience violence in your home but you experience hatred in your own heart. I find that December is one of those times where we're reminded where relationships that have gone astray are just not right and it's one of the things that bother us. I wonder sometimes if that's not why in December there is a spike in depression and even suicide. No matter how many toys we gather up for ourselves, there is this deep awareness in the human soul that something is astray.
I had that happen this last month. An irritation in my own heart and a realization that there is somebody in my life, not in this room, but someone in my life who had been a dear friend in my past that I'd developed irritating feelings towards. There wasn't a hatred there but a coldness in my own heart. Maybe you experience the destructive power of sin as affected in broken relationships or strained relationships around you.
Just like in the days of Mary, I think there can be deep grief over the alienation and loneliness that we feel. Maybe we are set in a family or maybe we are longing for the family that we never had. For some, you've never been in the church, but either way there is this sense in which God doesn't seem as close to you as he seemed to the people of the Bible. I am in touch with so many people who constantly think where is God in my life? The promises of the Bible seem better than the reality of my life. There are all of these ways in which sin brings a rupture in our relationships with God, in our relationship with one another. We, like Mary, are a people who live in captivity.
The good news of Advent is that we can be sure that God is not far off. God does not have his back turned to us. God comes to us in the most intimate and powerful of ways. Doesn't matter how dark our circumstance, doesn't matter how deep our shame, doesn't matter how small we feel or how ill-equipped we feel for the challenge that God has placed before us. The mystery of Advent to us is that God came in the person of his Son to lead his people like a Great Shepherd to streams of living water. The mystery of Advent is that just as he came, we look forward to a time in which he will come again in great power and vanquish every foe, every instinct toward violence in our world, every illness, even death itself, the Scripture tells us that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Are we prepared?
The only real question that we have before us is: Are we prepared for the coming of God to our lives today? The Bible is full of people who missed out on that gift. The Bible is full of people who did not receive the gift of God. Some of them were simply too cranky and bent on evil, but some of them were spiritual seekers. Some of them claimed to have been awaiting the work of God in their lives, and yet they missed it because they were looking in all the wrong places. Friends, our world has us looking in all the wrong places. Like that Porsche calendar it has us looking behind all the wrong doors. The question in this Advent is, will we train ourselves, will we adopt practices to help us to prepare a place for the gift of God in our lives? They were looking for God in a religious place but he came to a forgotten and despised place. They imagined that God would come to somebody powerful and educated, but he came to a young peasant girl. Some of them imagined that God would come in a royal palace but he would be born in a manger.
This is how Evelyn Underhill, a British mystic, put it, "The heavens open and what is disclosed? A baby, God manifest in the flesh. The stable, the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness—these form the setting of the divine gift."
I think Mary models for us what it means to prepare our hearts. She says this basic phrase in Luke 1:38. She simply says, "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me according to your word." And that is enough and the angel departs from her. I am the Lord's servant. I wonder what it would be if each of us today had come to a holy place, to a place in the presence of God, and make an honest confession saying, "I am the Lord's servant." It's a statement of disengagement. Mary is saying something very powerful here. She's saying, "I'm nobody else's servant. I'm not Caesar's servant; I'm not really even Joseph's servant. I am the Lord's servant. I belong to God." For this reason in the history of the church, Advent is actually a season of fasting. It's a season of letting go of other allegiances. Are you aware of the things that fill your mind, that fill your heart? Are you aware of the things that draw your attention away from the new life that God wants to bring to you?
For many of us, that distraction is simply materialism. I can identify with that. I have a thing in me that likes stuff. I am very entertained by new things and once I lock onto something that I want I am looking for it all the time on the Internet. I can just spend countless moments searching for the perfect thing that I want. What is it that has hold of your heart?
I wonder what it would be for us to turn away from consumer capitalism, to turn away from materialism, to disengage from the things that lay claim to our lives. What if we bought nothing for Christmas and gave our hearts to one another and gave our hearts to God? Would we not enter the year as a happier people?
This Advent season try and think about what it was like for the shepherds and the magi and their camels. What would it mean for us to make a long journey towards the gift that God has for us? I think one of the things that's most fascinating is that Mary, this young peasant girl, is so in tune with the promises of God. If you read the rest of Luke chapter 1, there is this great song called "The Magnificat" that she sings and it shows that her heart is set not on the things normally that young teenage girls' hearts are set on. She's not thinking about how to get a family set up and how to get the right home set up. She has a heart that has been saturated in the promises of God.
I want to challenge you, if there is a sense in which you are longing for God to do something new in your life, one of the very first places to begin is to begin by dwelling on the promises that God has made. It is in this way that Mary models for us what it means to journey towards the place where God's gift is most fully felt. As we move toward this season, I want to ask us in our busy lives, How is it that we will disengage our hearts from the things that latch on to us, and give our hearts more fully to the beauty of God and what God wants to do in us?
Brad Wong is the lead pastor of The River Church Community in San Jose, California.