I am a winter person. Where most people only see cold and dark, I see cozy sleepy days. Where some people dread, I anticipate. All through the wet spring, the parching hot summer and the dying fall, I wait for the quiet winter to come. To me, winter means peace in a world with little. It means rest in an age where I am coming to doubt its existence. To me, winter means Christmas will soon be here.
Christmas begins with Advent
Anticipating the coming Christ is an important theme in Christianity that is often lost in the commotion and celebration of Christmas. When there are presents to buy and family to see, it can be easy to miss taking time to reflect on what the coming of Christ means. However, such reflection is the reason why it is important to begin the Christmas season with Advent.
Often in our rush to Christmas we do not fully appreciate the season of Advent. Advent is so much more than getting a single, waxy chocolate each day from a box calendar with Disney characters printed on the front.
If Christmas is the coming of a world at peace, of a world made right, and if Christmas is the calm, then Advent is the wailing and the wilderness that the world is today. Advent helps us make sense of the importance of the coming peace. Advent is the time to recognize that the world is not right.
This may seem like an odd thing to remember, come the Christmas season. A holiday with eggnog, lights and carols does not seem like the right time or place to talk about the general faults of the world. However, there is a reason that the season of Advent should not be missed. To know why, we should first talk about John the Baptist.
The importance of the wild prophet
John the Baptist is not the type of man any civilized person would want to be friends with. He lives in the desert on a diet of honey and locusts and loves telling everyone he happens across that they need to repent from their wicked ways. John, to put it bluntly, is a weird guy.
John is, however, very important to God’s plan of salvation seen in Christ. Even before we hear John speak, we know he is going to be important because he is a child born of a miracle to elderly parents (Luke 1:5-25). In the Bible whenever there are odd circumstances with a birth, the resulting child is always part of God’s greater plan. In terms of overcoming infertility, think of Isaac, Joseph, and Samson and in terms of miraculous birth, think of Jesus.
The importance of John the Baptist in the story of Jesus is seen in his role in Advent. We read in Isaiah 40:3-5: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
John quotes this passage in Luke 3 to show his preaching as a fulfilment of prophecy. The time in which John lives is a time of great turmoil for the Jewish people. After a short but particularly unsavory rule by the Greeks, Palestine is under the fist of the Romans. The Jews, including John, lived as oppressed, second class citizens in a region considered by the Romans to be the boondocks of the empire and as such, corruption abounded. To a first century Jew living in Palestine, the world would both seem and in fact be broken; it would have been a rugged, desolate wilderness that needed to be made right.
We can see that the world is not how it should be from other sources of the period outside the Bible as well. This was the opinion of the Zealots, a Jewish religious group at the time who believed that the only way to make things right was to drive Rome out by force. Then, just as today, radical militant groups didn’t form without a reason.
It is into this world—a world so loud, so noisy and so broken that war seemed to be the only way to set things right—that we see the coming of this wild man, John the Baptist, who warns of the coming destruction, preaches repentance from sin, charity and contentment and tells of the one who will come soon to set things right (Luke 3:1-19). In the Gospels, John adds weight to the importance of the work of Christ by showing the reader that the world is broken, and that Christ is the one who will make it right.
The coming kingdom
In Revelation 21:1-4 we read: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is among the people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There are few passages in Scripture that fill us with more comfort and hope than this pas- sage from Revelation. In four verses we are assured that God is at work and will set things right. With Christ will come the peace we long for from the broken world of war and rumors of war in which we live.
Looking forward from this time of uncertainty and pointing to a time and a way
in which things will be made right is what John the Baptist did all those years ago. This
is why Advent is so important to understanding the true importance of Christmas. It is easy to say that Jesus was born that Christmas morning to set things right, and we are right to say this.
However, the full impact of the statement, the full gravity of just how large the problem is and just how much work it will take to make things right is lost without the season of Advent. To celebrate Christmas without first reflecting on why we need Christ the Savior is to cheapen the true meaning of Christmas. To celebrate Christmas without Advent is to celebrate the coming of a Savior without ever knowing what we need to be saved from. If you will forgive this rephrasing, peace is only peace if an end has been put to war.
I think we can agree that we live in a noisy pre-Christmas world. The world is not as it should be and that should put us on edge. But take heed of the words of John the Baptist from Luke 3:16: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
We live now in a time of Advent, but know that soon peace will come. Soon Christ will return to make new this broken world. Soon it will be Christmas again.
This article was first printed in the December 2015 issue of The Messenger, the publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, a conference of 62 churches averaging 7,700 worshipers in five Canadian provinces ministering in about two dozen countries.