Today is the third Sunday of Advent and a good day for summing up a few things that we’ve explored thus far. But before we do that, let’s remember where we started: Israel was called by God as an answer to the problem of humanity’s brokenness. Israel was to be a people set aside by their relationship with God for blessing (for themselves and the world) and for freedom to serve God as a model to the nations. They were to enjoy this under the protection of a just a righteous king, anointed by God. However, they ultimately rejected God’s way for them and so were conquered and exiled in 722 and 587BC. While Israel was able to return to their land, they were ruled by a succession of foreign empires up through the time of Jesus and did not experience the full restoration and relationship with God that they longed for.
Here’s the point… we began looking at the Christmas story with Israel having lived in hope for around 700 years (which is probably longer than most of us have experience with). So, what have we learned on this long journey? What do these stories teach us about how to hope and wait well for God, and what do they say we can expect when God acts?
The Big Lessons (drumroll, please!):
#1: God is faithful.
The most significant lesson is the most basic; God comes through on his promises. Though it is a long time in the coming, God, beginning with the Christmas story, acts dramatically to restore his people and answer their hopes. And it’s important to say that God was not absent to Israel between the exile and the birth of Jesus; but Israel had to be content with God’s small provisions and small presence until he came in the flesh. It would have been very easy for the Israelites to throw in the towel on their hopes over all those years (and many did). The ones who didn’t were able to endure in hope because they ultimately trusted in God’s character instead of their circumstances. Therefore, our hope must begin with God’s character if we are to run our course faithfully. And if our hope is to bear fruit, we must frequently revisit it, and keep looking for it (watchfulness) so that we’ll be ready to respond when the time is right.
#2. Hope requires dissatisfaction, community and sacrifice.
Almost all of the key characters in our stories, including the prophets we first read, maintained a dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in their world. Their feelings were indicated by their words of vindication or by actions that revealed their willingness to break with the status quo for something hoped for. If we are to be people of hope we must not accept the things that the world offers to soothe and forget our dissatisfaction, but we must cling to what is greater than those momentary comforts. (We’ll discuss this at length next week.)
You’ll also notice that nearly all the characters in these stories have a community to support them as they hope . . . Zechariah is part of a division of priests, Elizabeth and Mary have each other, the shepherds and Magi come and go as a groups, and Joseph and Mary probably stay with family when Jesus is born. The reality of our world is that it is nearly impossible to hold on to hope if we are isolated; there’s just too much that works against us. Who makes up the community that helps you hold on to your hope in God?
Finally, almost all of these characters would have had an easier time if they had exchanged their hope for fleeting comforts. Mary and Joseph could have had a normal marriage, the Magi could be safe and secure at home, the shepherds could have gotten a decent night’s sleep, and Zechariah and Elizabeth could have accepted their lot and moved on to other things. All of these characters found great joy ultimately in their hope, but none of them received it without sacrifice in the process. For this reason, the choice to hope is an intentional choice.
#3: God answers his people’s hopes in surprising ways . . .
Again, the obvious one! They want a king and savior and restoration, and he sends a baby! A poor, crying, very human baby. Yes, this baby will go on to some pretty spectacular things (like resurrection), but up front this sure didn’t seem like a perfect plan. Waiting in hope well requires our willingness to set aside our expectations for how God will act to fulfill his plans. If we put God in the box there is a good chance we’ll miss what we’re looking for!
#4: … and invites unqualified people to partner with him in the process!
Throughout the Christmas narrative God invites (in some cases, quite strongly!) people to work alongside of him to bring about the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. He invites them to share the story, to bear the children, to follow the star, to provide the hospitality, to obey the dream and to take the risk of partnering with him. God gets the ball rolling, and works providentially behind the scenes, but allows his people to carry the action forward. Guess what? The same is true for us today! And while we may try to wriggle our way out of God’s invitations by claiming we’re unqualified, these stories prove us wrong. Everyone in these story’s is unqualified! Zechariah has lost hope, Elizabeth is too old, Mary is a virgin (Joseph is out on that count too), the Magi are pagan sorcerers, the shepherds are poor and lowly… these are not people qualified at all to do what God asks. But it turns out that if God is working with you your qualifications don’t really matter!
#5: Partnering with God is risky and uncomfortable and full of joy.
We’ve been down this road already, but it’s worth saying it again. Elizabeth and Mary could have died in childbirth, it was very common in their day. Joseph could have lost social status and potentially his family’s honor. The Magi could have lost their lives traveling or to Herod if he caught them escaping. Zechariah is struck mute. The shepherds could have been laughed at and run off. Yet all of these characters find joy in the midst of their trials and danger. Christmas is not about being safe and cozy and content, though we all love those things and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Christmas is about taking a risk to be part of something greater than us. It’s about giving up control and security and self-will to participate in God’s work to roll back the darkness in our world and establish his kingdom of blessing, freedom, justice and peace. And being part of that work, difficult and dangerous as it is, is a joy worth far more than any of the comforts and entertainments that the world offers to satisfy us.