The Greatest Fear
What is the single greatest fear that most people have about the Advent season, especially Christmas Day? I doubt it has to do with finding the perfect gift. Nor does it seem like the inevitable holiday weight-gain would rank as the greatest fear. Debates over religion and politics at the dinner table might earn a higher rank but even those fights are nothing compared to a deeper fear of the soul.
I believe it to be the lack of presence. Not a lack of presents (or gifts) but a lack of presence. No one wants to be alone during this season. We sing songs about being home for Christmas. Many Christmas films riff on the theme of being separated from family and loved ones at Christmas. We cower at the thought of waking up to ourselves with no lit tree, no joyful laughter, and with nobody to share the day. Consider the very ghosts that haunted Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, they haunted him with lonely Christmases. Studies indicate that depression hits widows and widowers deepest at the holidays. I can almost guess that a full 98% of people reading this article would prefer to have someone, even if they didn’t really like them, to be with on Christmas over spending it with no one at all.
What is it about Advent that reveals this fear in almost all of us? If we look at the very nature of what it means we will find the very reason being physically alone during this season troubles so many. At its core it is more than just remembering the coming of God into our existence, Advent is about the actual presence of God in our existence. It’s the one season that reminds us that God is with us. So, when we consider a season that tells us God is with us and yet functionally experience it in loneliness a massive discord hits. The discord, for most, isn’t with God. It’s within ourselves. We should be experiencing presence. We should be with others and God should be with us.
Presence on the Way
Four hundred years is a long time to wait. The United States of America has barely existed for half of that time. It would be nearly impossible to understand then the absence and silence from God for that amount of time. However, that is exactly where the people of Israel were. National culture and identity would go through an immense rewriting if it had been four hundred years since you had a prophetic word from the national center of worship activity. Certainly brief and dim glimpses of recovery and hope came and recharged everyone’s expectations but they were just that, brief and dim. Sure, they had the prophetic words of old to lean on. Isaiah did promise Emmanuel, even if that was seven hundred years ago.
Then, rumors started cropping up. Angelic visitations occurred. Barren old women conceived. Kings from the East traveled West. A nation immigrated within itself because of a census. A virgin was with child. Then, the rumors died down. Things went back to normal for another thirty years until a shabbily dressed man like Elijah began to speak for God in the wilderness. He was no respecter of persons and called kings, priests, and publicans to repent. A nation finally received a prophetic word: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is present. God is with us. Emmanuel has come.”
Yes, Emmanuel, God with us. He was attested to be God by his words and works by doing things only God could do. God with us possessing authority to drive out sin, devils, and death. God with us doing justice, loving the outcast and the stranger. God with us dinning with the drunkards, the harlots, and the sinners. God with us clothed in the material flesh of our bodies. Emmanuel experienced the physical limitations, pains, and agonies of our condition. God with us bearing the wrath of God in our place for our offenses against God and taking our very own death-blow. God with us being laid in a tomb dead for three days, he, God with us, was miraculously raised to glorious new life again by the power of God–securing resurrection life for all who trust in him. God with us sent his eternal presence to indwell and empower us for lives of glory and mission. He hasn’t left us, in fact, God with us has come, became flesh, and lived in our very domain and gifted us his eternal presence so we would always be with him.
Advent as a Missional Teacher
This is what Advent points us towards. A seasonal reminder of presence. An annual celebration of God’s personal intervention and presence with us. Advent teaches us that God is with us and that God is for us. Advent shows us God-in-action working for his glory and for our good. Our reflection of this reality can not leave us to merely feel good about God with us, it must propel us forward to display the God whose image we bear.
Advent becomes a missional teacher to us as we consider that God shares life with broken, messed up, needy, people of disrepute. As we increasingly consider God with us, we must ask ourselves are we displaying this reality to the world? Are we showing lonely people God with us by our presence with them? Are we enacting this good news for the same broken, messed up, needy, people of disrepute that God with us hung out with?
As much as Advent is a season for gathering with family and friends, for the church it is a missional launching point for us to inhabit and take the gospel to the world. The world sits and waits year after year for a savior. They make functional saviors of sex, power, possessions, comfort, and a billion other idols they can find. Yet, all the while being let down year after year by their little, failing, and distant gods. The world is waiting, the Savior has come, the church must be present!
Practically this boils down to one thing—be with people. In the same way God became present in the world, he sends us to go and be with the world. Be at the parties, the Christmas programs, the neighborhood celebrations, the family dinners, and the company gift-exchange. As you are with people, love them. Be the presence that the lonely, lost, waiting world is so eager to receive. Show them their Savior through your love, by the way you honor them, give them dignity, listen to their stories, and hear their hurts.
A rocket-science degree isn’t mandatory, just ask the Holy Spirit to show you someone that he can display his presence to through your presence with them, and then follow his lead. Go be present with the world because God is present with you. The world waits for God with us and we are blessed to display that God is with us!
Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.