Advent is a time for us to return to what this season—and our lives—are to be about: worship. Not just for Advent, but for always.
As the season of Advent comes into view, we wanted to invite our readers to pick up our resource, A Guide for Advent: The Arrival of King Jesus. With essays that will help you focus on the meaning and anticipation of the Advent season, this guide will help you walk closer to Christ as the day we celebrate his birth draws close. Enjoy this excerpt from our Executive Director, Jeremy Writebol, and pick up the ebook or paperback in time for the first Sunday of Advent, December 3.
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 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.
Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and That Word Above All Earthly Powers. He writes personally at jwritebol.net.
No matter how much of a Grinch you are, most of us do not think Christmas is inherently evil. Ha! That is funny to write. That said, many of us might not like Christmas, slightly dread Christmas, or want Christmas to be over with already. Christmas has been hijacked. Black Friday, malls, online shopping, and family with the best of intentions have all hijacked Christmas. Instead of a time and season for us to reflect on the miracle of Jesus, we instead find ourselves running around like chickens with our heads cut off in a season controlled by busyness, consumerism, gluttony, spending, and a frantic circus of parading your family around from one event to the next where kids are trained not to be satisfied with one present or one candy cane but to quickly move on to the next present and the next candy cane and the next present and next present and next present as we train them to be greedy, selfish, and dissatisfied. Christmas has become a circus.
Let’s embrace Christmas again!
Let’s create traditions and goals to slow down and savor the wonder that is the Son of God coming in the flesh. Time for us to embrace the humility and simplicity of a God who was born in a small-town, in a barn, and in a feeding trough for livestock. A Savior and King who was homeless, carless, smartphone-less, and Amazon-less. What if his coming and his living held both principles and keys to not just surviving Christmas but thriving in Christmas? What if instead of Christmas leaving us with a materialism and people-pleasing hangover it left us refreshed and was used as a springboard for our faith in Jesus Christ?
That is why I am writing this. Below are a list of seven values and some practical ideas that my family is striving for. Feel free to borrow these ideas or create your own to help you best live out your values for this Christmas!
1. Keep the focus on Jesus.
We all have fun Christmas traditions. My family loves to watch Elf and Home Alone and walk through those crazy Christmas circle neighborhoods where ninety-nine out of 100 houses (there always seems to be that one dark house that is either Jehovah Witnesses or missed the memo that they live on candy cane lane) are insanely decked out with Christmas lights and inflatables.
These are all fun and valuable traditions but if they are only traditions we will wake up in January and realize we didn’t talk about, think about, pray to or enjoy Jesus for a whole month! The culture has replaced Jesus and we can easily do the same if we do not intentionally keep the focus on Jesus. We have to make it our goal to keep our focus on Jesus and on the wonder of the incarnation. We want to remember Jesus, reflect on Jesus, and celebrate Jesus while spending time with Jesus this and every Christmas season.
I want to share a few simple practices that can help us keep the focus on Jesus. The first is to celebrate Advent and have a daily reminder, short story, or key Bible verse that you read as a family that points us back to Jesus. Another is to make sure the Christmas story is read and celebrated on Christmas and/or Christmas Eve. Finally, listen to and sing Christmas songs during the Christmas season that are about Jesus and talk as a family about what these songs are really about and even compare them to Christmas songs that aren’t about Jesus and what message those proclaim as well.
2. Slowing down.
We must say “no” to some of our old traditions and some of the gift-giving and receiving to accomplish this huge value. Two practices can help us slow down to enjoy Jesus and family. First, take the week of Christmas off of work, hobbies, errands, and some of the normal routine to slow down and focus more on enjoying Jesus and people. Second, Christmas cards every other year to have more time to focus on Jesus.
3. Time with immediate family.
Christmas is a great time to spend with relatives, friends, and that one crazy uncle, but if we are not careful, we can miss out on having even a moment with our immediate family. Plan ahead and have time set aside for just our household to enjoy Jesus and one another.
4. Time with Church family.
For many, our relatives might not love Jesus, and there is something unique about enjoying this season with others who have trusted Jesus. Prioritize spending time with your church family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Spend time in your church communities to celebrate evidences of God’s grace together and pray thanksgiving for all the gifts Jesus has given us.
5. Time for mission.
Christmas reminds us that Jesus left his home to invite us into a relationship with him. The Christmas story is a story of mission and the best way to honor this story is to live the story by inviting others into this story! Pray through who you can invite over for a meal on or around Christmas. Invite neighbors and friends to Christmas gatherings and events that share the good news of Jesus.
6. Time for charity.
Giving and receiving presents is nice, but often we need nothing more than giving to others who are in need. Giving and receiving gifts are not evil, but there is an opportunity to remember those who need the basics—food, water and clothes. Christmas is a time to worship our charitable God who gave us everything we need by choosing one or more charities to give to or serve alongside as a family. We can use this season to give to real needs and raise awareness within our household, church, and even extended family of great opportunities to give to!
7. Taming the Grandparents.
Grandparents are a gift and some of us are blessed to have generous and loving grandparents who love to bless (aka spoil the living daylight) our kids with presents and candy. Sometimes, they can be so excited about Christmas that they go overboard in the presents and candy category and give more than any kids could possibly know what to do with and can accidentally enforce that Christmas is only about getting.
It can be helpful to thank grandparents for their generosity but also encourage them to give each kid one small gift or a group gift or best an experience gift (e.g., movie tickets, children museum passes, etc.) rather than a million toys. If you are going to pull this “taming” off you will have to set this encouragement earlier in the year and regularly remind as it could be a bit of an uphill battle.
There you have it. Seven values to help us embrace Christmas again! Now many of these values make sense not just for Christmas but for all of life. And that is the point. Taking Christmas back means once again using it as a season to remind us of what is most important and leaving us refreshed and encouraged rather than it being a cyclone of consumerism leaving us with a busyness hangover. Let’s enjoy Jesus and his people this Christmas. Let’s slow down and say “no” to materialism and “yes” to a minimalist Jesus who came and lived humbly and simply and let’s look forward to his return!
Jake Chambers is the husband to his beautiful bride Lindsey, and a daddy to Ezra, Roseanna, and Jaya. Jake is passionate about seeing the gospel both transform lives and create communities that love Jesus, the city, and the lost. He currently serves Red Door Church in San Diego through leading, preaching, equipping, and pastoring.
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy writes a letter to Red and includes the following remark, “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”If I could respond to Andy, I would simply say, “Amen.” The reason, of course, is that hope truly is a good thing. Despite difficulties, hope is one of things that people everywhere hold onto, even if momentarily. Hoping admits frailty and attempts to look beyond the status quo, eagerly desiring and longing for something more. It’s good, yet it can be dangerous.
Grasping For Hope
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12
For several hundreds years, Israel did not hear a word from the LORD. The same mouth that spoke all things into existence at creation, chose not to speak for a time. This time in redemptive history was cold, dark, and grimmer than the ominous silence before an impending tsunami. Israel had been exiled and only a few returned home. Things were not the same. Would God keep his covenant? Would God deliver them from Greek rule? Roman rule? Questions abound.... It’s within this context the Christmas story arrives.
Luke writes, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Lk. 2:25, emphasis mine). Simeon kept the covenant by faith, hence Luke’s description in Luke 2:25. Here was a man who was waiting—expecting, hoping, and looking forward to Israel receiving comfort. Why was Israel in need of comfort? Grief. Pain. Frustration. Uncertainty. They lacked hope. That was status quo in Israel when the Christ was born.
Charles Wesley wrote of this in 1744 with the hymn, Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus:
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born Thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine of eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine own sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Longing, expectation, and hope of the kingdom—but where and when would it come? Anointed by the Holy Spirit, Simeon was granted divine revelation: “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk. 2:26). Simeon was promised that he would in fact see the messiah. Finally! Hope had dawned and, though the sunshine seemed dim, the brightness would come in the promised messiah.
Simeon followed the revelation and the leading of the Spirit and went to the temple where he met Joseph and Mary by divine appointment. Simeon holds the child then blesses God. In a fit of divine elation, Simeon thanks God for the fruition of the promise: He has seen God’s salvation. And that salvation will be a light to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
Simeon grasped for hope and, in God’s wise counsel, this hope was held in his very own hands. The messiah would bring light, truth, salvation, and hope to all nations (Is. 42:6; 49:6; 60:1-3).
The Story Progresses
Fast forward to the end of Luke’s Gospel account. Jesus was betrayed, murdered, buried, and raised. Talk about a journey of hope! This promised messiah stared death in the face, brutally falling under the sword of divine wrath. I suspect if Simeon were present at the execution of Jesus, he might have asked the following questions: “Was this the same man I held in my arms? The one the Spirit promised would be messiah? Now that he is dead, how could he possible be the consolation of Israel?”
Those who watched Jesus being crucified could have benefited from this Psalm, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Ps. 42:5).
Yet Christ was raised! Death couldn’t keep him for long; no, Jesus walked out of the tomb leaving death in the grave. “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 146:5). Jesus was blessed! God was his hope. Jesus saw his vindication on the other side of the cross.
Jesus then appears to a couple of his disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24). These disciples were walking along discussing among themselves the apparent failure of Jesus to bring the promised consolation to Israel. They say as much, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:21). Did you catch that? We had hoped.
Tension. Simeon was told that Jesus was the hope that was coming to the world to bring redemption. Yet it seemed as if Jesus failed. He died! Messiah’s don’t just die! Hope was already waning when Jesus was arrested and now it has all but dwindled.
Little do the disciples know that Jesus rose from the dead, so he explained that the entire Bible is about him (Lk. 24:27). After that, they share a meal, their eyes are opened, and they know it’s him. He immediately disappears from their presence. After admitting an odd case of divine heart-burn (Lk. 24:32), they spread the news: “Hope is here! Hope has come! Our consolation is truly here!” The gospel announcement marches forward.
The consolation that Simeon and the disciples were desperate for is still the same consolation we long for. The kingdom of God was launched in the person and work of Christ. This kingdom is not yet here in its fullest expression. Christ has been enthroned and his crown rights should be acknowledged by all nations, but not all nations have been discipled. The hope that surrounds Jesus’ first coming propels the church’s mission forward, knowing that the future hope we have is guaranteed by the resurrection of Christ.
We can learn much from the first advent as we peer into the future, longing for the second. Jeremiah Burroughs comments, “Faith and hope purge and work a suitableness in the soul to the things believed and hoped for.”
The act of faith (trusting without seeing) coupled with hope (longing and expectation) shape and mold the soul in such a way as to align one’s heart with what is envisioned. In other words, whatever our hope is our lives are to be lived in such a way as to strive for it. The soul is built to desire—to desire is to hope and to hope is to desire. So what does Christian hope look like?
Christian hope is quiet and waits patiently. It cries out with the Psalmist, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry” (Ps. 40:1). Christian hope is also confident expectation. Sure, we wait patiently and quietly, but we also look forward confident in God to be faithful to his promises. To have confident expectation is to yearn for something. We “put out our necks” to see when God will come.
We live in-between.
To live in between the advents of messiah is to look back on what God has done with excitement and look forward to what God will do with eagerness. We hope in what is to come because we see what God has already done. Living in between the advent pushes future hope deep into the soul because God has already proven himself faithful. Hope is only as good as the presupposed promise and that promise comes from the God of all true and better promises.
Real, Robust Resurrection Hope
We can hope with full confidence because Jesus is alive. The down payment of the firstfruits of the resurrection in Christ is a done deal. Christ has died. Christ is risen. The objective reality of the empty tomb is the fuel that drives the engine of hope. Sure, we don’t see the entire picture: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). But we don’t have to. The future belongs to God and those to whom he chooses to give it. But that doesn’t undermine our hope. It drives it.
What Christians hold on to during Advent is not fuzzy feelings of the past. We don’t celebrate Advent because God did something real nice once before. We take time to celebrate Christ’s coming because of a real, robust resurrection hope. The tomb is empty. The gospel announcement has been shouted. Christ has come, yet he will come again. Hope is definitely a good thing. Yes, it is dangerous because we can hope in things that will disappoint. That’s reality when living in the in-between. But resurrection power has come and will come again. Is there a surer or greater hope?
Rev. Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI and author of Be Holy and The Fight for Joy. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.
Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. – Psalm 23:5
Hope, joy, peace, and love are probably not the first words that come to your mind when you think of refugees. You've likely seen the images of men, women, and children crammed into little rubber boats attempting to flee the blood thirst of ISIS. Many of them, to their horror, land on foreign soil only to be turned away. They are not welcome.
Joseph and the nine-months pregnant Mary were similarly turned away when they asked for refuge at an inn in Bethlehem. So the child-king and Savior of the world was born, not in a palace, not even in a Motel 6, but an animal stable and placed in a feeding trough as a makeshift crib.
God is so often nearest to those who are most desperate.He was there in the stable with the postpartum Mary, although just a babe. Those in extreme situations recognize more quickly their need for divine assistance while affluence and material comfort blind many of us. But make no mistake; we are all in need of God's rescue. An unknown author captured this in the opening lines of a seventh-century Advent hymn:
Creator of the stars of night, Thy people's everlasting light, Jesus, Redeemer, save us all, And hear Thy servants when they call. – Creator of the Stars of Night, trans. John M. Neale
His prayer was not for Jesus to save only the poor, or only the rich, but to save us all. We all suffer under the weight of the Fall and sin's deadly consequences. You may have seen the images of children beheaded at the hands of ISIS and felt the twist in your gut at the severe injustice. If you experienced feelings of hatred and rage, you were not alone.
Many are migrating away from their homeland to escape the wrath of ISIS so their children will not end up in a photograph passed around social media to stoke the sympathy of the West. God is not unfamiliar with the threat. Jesus was not yet two years old when his mother and adoptive father had to flee Bethlehem to escape a similar fate. Herod, the dictator-king of Judea, took the life of every small boy in the area (Matt. 2:13-18). He takes this rough measure to secure his self-worship and prevent a child-savior from threatening his rule. The hymn continues:
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse Should doom to death a universe, Hast found the medicine, full of grace, To save and heal a ruined race.
Could you imagine being one of the families who lost their son at the hands of Herod? Some in Iraq and Syria don't have to imagine; it’s their reality. The curse is real, and the death it brings permeates our entire universe. If you've wondered where God is in the midst of the chaos, you are not alone.
The child who escaped the sword of Herod was later crucified and disfigured at the hands of sinful men. A gruesome act of man that doubled as God's most glorious act of rescue, for Jesus laid his life down of his own accord (Jn. 10:18). He will soon return for his bride. His grace will save and heal our ruined human race.
The arrival of the child, in the unassuming stable, brought hope, joy, peace, and love.
Thou cam'st, the Bridegroom of the bride, As drew the world to evening-tide; Proceeding from a virgin shrine, The spotless Victim all divine.
Our consciences, at their best moments, are outraged at the heinous acts of ISIS. At their worst, they excuse us for our own heinous thoughts and deeds. While it feels difficult to identify with ISIS, we have more in common with them than we do with Jesus. We have the blood of Jesus, the only perfect one, on our hands. It was our sin that sent him to the cross. He would undergo the worst injustice humanity has ever seen. That child virgin-born would never experience guilt from his own thoughts or actions, for they were perfect always. But he became one of us and experienced a separation from the Father, all to rescue those who forsook him.
At Whose dread Name, majestic now, All knees must bend, all hearts must bow; And things celestial Thee shall own, And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
That baby in a stable was peaceful and adorable. But when he returns a second time the ledger will be made right. Yes, those who punish his children will someday recognize his terrible majesty and might. No one will stand on that day—all will bow, things in heaven and on earth.
We like this—God returning to execute justice—so long as we are not on the receiving end. If you've experienced God's grace and mercy in the person of Christ, the debt you owe—the cosmic consequence of your sin—has been paid. But do you long for those exacting vengeance in the name of Allah to experience the same grace?
Someday, they will rightly see the divine power and glory of Christ. In obedience to Christ, we should be praying that day occurs before judgment, the terrible day when:
O Thou Whose coming is with dread To judge and doom the quick and dead, Preserve us, while we dwell below, From every insult of the foe.
Those deplorable actions of Herod and ISIS, they are but the last death throes of the one who came to kill and destroy (Jn. 10:10). That babe in the manger has crushed his head, and while his heart still beats, he is as good as dead.
Jesus has not yet returned to balance the scales of justice, so hope is alive for those within the ranks of ISIS (and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s converted a terrorist for his glory Acts 8).
While we dwell below we may not be protected from all the Enemy's blows, but we do rest firmly in the hand of the Savior and King. Our hope is in the one to which we sing:
To God the Father, God the Son, And God the Spirit, Three in One, Laud, honor, might, and glory be From age to age eternally.
In him, we find our hope, despite the injustice in this world. In him, we find our joy, despite the violence that tries to rob us. In him, we find peace, despite those that insist on war. And in him, we know love. That’s why we can love our enemies because Jesus died for us when we were his enemies, and he now sends his Spirit to dwell within us.
As we reflect on his first advent, we see the creator of the world erupting into human history, taking on flesh, and dying for us as a substitute. His first advent has shown us that nothing is impossible with God. We wait, patiently, but expectantly for his second advent. We say with the Apostle Paul:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:31-39
Paul contrasts the love of God in Christ against the backdrop of almost every possible human suffering we could face. The words are timeless as we head into Advent. If our heart is never heavy due to the pain of the world, we are not paying attention. But if our heart is faint because of these woes, we have not reflected enough on the gospel’s victory. Paul, commenting on his own trials, referred to himself as "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" (2 Cor. 6:10). This same attitude should mark us as we prepare our hearts for Advent.
Some head into this season with very little. They long for something simple and material: a hot meal, a warm bed. Thoughts of hope, joy, peace, and love are far from them. But God has given up his son for us all; will he not then give us these intangible desires? Some have lost their children; God knows what it’s like to watch a child die. Multitudes of people are afraid of God's condemnation due to their sin; he justifies. Not because of what we've done, but because of what Christ did. The hearts of many are so busy they do not know how to approach God and feel ill prepared for this season; Jesus is interceding for them. In some places radical Islamists may separate people's heads from their bodies; they cannot separate a Christian from the love of God. God is for us. God is with us. This is the meaning of Jesus' name, Immanuel. Through him, we are more than conquerors.
It’s possible for an army to win a war but suffer tremendous loss of lives. Conquering comes, usually, at a great cost. Not so with those who trust Christ. While everything in this world may be taken from us, our lives rest solely with Christ who will raise them up again. He's already demonstrated that by raising up his own.
Jesus Christ is our hope (1 Tim. 1:1) and he has overcome the world that stands against us (Jn. 16:33). He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3), so that we could have joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). He will soon return with a sword coming out of his mouth to silence his enemies (Rev. 19:5), but for those who trust in him he is our peace (Eph. 2:14). The people of God have a multitude of enemies standing against them, but the hope of spiritual Israel is in the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8).
Hope, joy, peace, and love. The themes may seem foggy. The words intangible. But when we cast our gaze upon Jesus these words take on flesh as he did (Jn. 1:14).
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is about to be a father for the second time. He occasionally blogs at Hardcore Grace.
Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.
If we do not understand the weight of the miracle of the incarnation of Christ, it’s because we do not understand the weight of the holiness of God. The incarnation is shocking. It is outrageous to think that an infinite and holy God would voluntarily become finite to live with unholy sinners. In fact, the incarnation is so appalling that it is the thing that separates Christianity from Islam and Judaism. The Jerusalem Talmud says, “If man claims to be God, he is a liar” (Ta’anit 2:1), while the Quran says, “Allah begets not and was not begotten” (Sura al-Ikhlas 112). Jews and Muslims understand how ludicrous it is to think that a holy God would humiliate himself by becoming human.
The Dreadful Holiness of God
The holiness of God is fearful. But if we want to know God and ourselves, we must begin by seeing how much God loves his holiness and cherishes his purity. If we do not start here, the gospel will become cheap to us. As A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy,
“Unless the weight of the burden is felt, the gospel can mean nothing to man; and until he sees a vision of God high and lifted up, there will be no woe and no burden. Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”
Under the old covenant, people responded to the holiness of God with awe and reverence. When Moses met the Lord, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3:6). Then, years later, when he begged to see God’s glory, God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). When the ark of the Lord was being brought back to Israel, some men looked inside of it and, as a result, the Lord struck down fifty thousand men. The people despaired, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam. 6:20). When David was bringing the ark to Jerusalem, one man merely touched it, and God struck him down immediately, “And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’” (2 Sam. 6:9). The nearer Ezekiel approached the throne of the Lord, the less sure his words became: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face” (Ez 1:28).
Not only did people tremble at his holiness, the Lord himself frequently spoke about it. Through Isaiah, he said, “Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel … All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Is 40:13, 17). When Job finished calling his character into question, the Lord answered from the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:2, 4).
The Incarnation of that Dreadful Holiness
Jesus embodies the holiness of God because he is God and has been with God from the beginning (Jn 1:1-2). This means that, when God acted under the old covenant, Jesus—as part of the Godhead—was right there with him. This is why the incarnation is a shocking miracle. In Christ, God has effected self-disclosure. Our holy God, who told Moses, “for man shall not see me and live,” became incarnate. People saw him and lived.
Our holy God, who struck down a man for touching the ark and another fifty thousand for looking inside of it, became incarnate. People spit upon him and lived. Our holy God, whose throne was so magnificent that Ezekiel failed to find words to describe it, became incarnate. He was born as a baby in a manger, not a throne. Our holy God, who demanded blood sacrifices to atone for sin, became incarnate. He allowed himself to be butchered on a cross.
Our holy God, who asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” became incarnate. He was born in an insignificant little town and worked as a mere carpenter in Nazareth.
Incarnation in Our Cities
What does the incarnation mean for us today?
First, the incarnation means that we live in the world, but not of it
As Jesus prayed for his disciples, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:15). In other words, we pursue holy lives of obedience and sacrifice even as we engage in our cities.
Second, the incarnation means that we seek opportunities to deny ourselves
Self-denial is not a popular topic in our culture, but it is the starting point for Christian growth in the mind of Christ. When Jesus became incarnate, he voluntarily denied himself the privileges of being God in order to be mocked and killed (Phil. 2:8). He did this because he longed to redeem us and knew that, in order to accomplish our salvation, the demands of his holiness had to be met. We could not meet them, so he met them for us. We, in turn, are to have the same mind, “do[ing] nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves” (Phil. 3:3). We deny ourselves to love others.
Third, the incarnation means that we do not love money
God is the richest being in the universe. Everything is made by him, through him and for him. Yet as he looked upon the world and decided into what family he would come, he chose the poorest of the poor. When Mary and Joseph went to the temple after the birth of Jesus, Luke records, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. . . and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’” (Lk 2:22-24). Under the Law, the regular sacrifice was a lamb, but there was a provision for poor mothers: “If she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons” (Lv 12:8). This is what Mary brought. Jesus, who had all the riches of the world at his disposal, chose to be incarnate into a family that could not even afford a regular sacrifice. Let us not love riches.
Fourth, the incarnation means that we should not overvalue physical beauty
Our culture loves external appearances, but the incarnate Christ chose to come as someone who had no physical beauty or majesty. He is the most glorious person who has ever lived, but we did not recognize his glory. Thousands saw him with their eyes, but they saw nothing with their hearts. We, in turn, must look for beauty in our world with the eyes of our heart. What will we see when we look at the world this way? We will see that, today, the Lord lives in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. As Jesus taught, when we care for such people, we do this unto him.
Finally, the incarnation means that God is for us
Paul was not merely referring to the crucifixion when he wrote, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). He was also referring to the incarnation, when Jesus left the side of the Father to become man and accomplish our salvation. The incarnation means that God is for us. Jesus left the Godhead and all the privileges thereof to die. He lived a humiliating and self-denying life to bring us to God, where there are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11). He veiled his awful and fearful holiness so that we could touch him, see him, know him, and love him. No longer does he say, “No man can see my face and live.” Today, he says, “See my face and be satisfied” (Ps 17:15).
When we live in light of the incarnation of Christ, our lives will be shocking to others. Although we are sons and daughters of the King, we must humiliate ourselves by serving others. All things may be permissible, but we will deny ourselves certain things or activities so that we can grow in our love for God and others. We will earn money, but we will strategize how to give it away for the sake of the kingdom. Living in a physical world, we will spend more effort on cultivating our inner beauty than our outer beauty. We will trust in the promises of God more than our circumstances because we know he is for us. When we live like this, people will think we are ludicrous. They will find our choices shocking. Yet we will point to the miracle of the incarnation of Christ. Our lives will testify to the great news of Advent. That news is this: Christ has come, God is with us.
Bethany L. Jenkins is the Director of The Gospel Coalition’s Every Square Inch, the Director of Vocational & Career Development at The King’s College, and the Founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where she is a current CFW Fellow and a former Gotham Fellow through the Center for Faith & Work. You can follow her on Twitter.