Advent: what are you waiting for?

The season of lament and hope

Posted on December 20, 2015

Mary's Song

Advent is all about waiting. But what exactly are we waiting for? It makes all the difference. A small child waits impatiently and excitedly for the presents he knows he will get on Christmas day. A person next to a broken down car on a dark empty road waits with desperation and worry for someone to save him. Both are very different styles of waiting. Both right in their own context, and both explained by the endpoint that they are looking towards.

"He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Luke 1:51-55

The first thing you might notice is that it is so boldly in past tense! It is declaring what God has already done. At first it seems like Christmas has come early for Mary! No need to wait for anything. Her God has already done all this!

And she’s right. She’s got a good grasp of history. You can attach all sorts of bible stories here: Scattering the proud at the tower of Babel, bringing down the mighty thrones of Pharoah, the Philistines, the Babylonians . Feeding the hungry with manna from heaven... the LORD has helped his servants time and time again.

She can look back and boldly say: this is my God. He has done these things!!

But that’s not what she’s saying is it.

There's a reason this song appears here and now in Luke Chapter 1. Can you feel the subtext? The niggling feeling that arises... is that God hasn’t helped. Not yet. In Mary's time, Israel is still surrounded by the proud and mighty. Still oppressed. Still hungry. The LORD hasn’t yet shown strength with his arm. That’s exactly what Mary is waiting for? She’s waiting for permanent solutions to these huge problems. And her bold joyful affirmation of God's saving activity is actually her particular style of waiting, shaped by the endpoint she is looking toward. She knows that her Lord will deliver again, just like he once did.


And now we have what Advent is all about: a particular style of waiting. Mary is waiting for her baby to be born, like any mother. But Mary is going beyond the birth. She is thinking of what Jesus will accomplish. She is looking around at how messed up her world is, she is looking back at her Bible and her history, and she is looking forward knowing that the God that revealed himself then, will do so again... through her son.

This looking around, looking back and looking forward, I'd like to suggest, can also be referred to as lament and hope. It is the very heart of what celebrating Advent should be about. Take, for example, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about Advent:

"The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come."

Stolen from Timothy George's recent post on Bonhoeffer

The lament and hope found in Bonhoeffer's description of Advent can also be seen clearly in Mary's song. Unfortunately, it's a lot harder to see it in our modern celebrations of Christmas, even within the Church. Within evangelical circles we tend to have quite the triumphal attitude to Christmas. We are so keen to lead people from the birth to the cross, that we leave no room for lamenting about our current situation, or hoping for greater things to come. Instead the implication ends up being that all our victories have been accomplished already.

This is not a new problem. Karl Barth raised in in a Christmas sermon in 1930:

“To pretend that with the coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God has already begun, and that it is present and visible in the Church… is false retrospective “enthusiasm”. World History since the birth of Christ has still been the story of the same dark age that existed before Christ”

Barth, Karl 1930, 'Promise, Time and Fulfilment' in B Citron (Tr.) 'Christmas', p.37

I do firmly believe it is very important for the Church to highlight the cross at Christmas. But it would be more accurate and helpful to say that Jesus was Born to live, die, rise again, ascend into glory, and then return to judge the living and the dead. Obviously, this is not as simple as the simple catchphrase 'Born to Die'; It's a little harder to put a hash tag in front of it (#borntolivedieriseascendreturn). But without the full picture explained clearly, then people are left with either no hope of change, or over-the-top expectations for their life now, and little or no comfort when the hard times really hit hard. 

The Church needs to lament at Christmas. That only happens when we look around and acknowledge that we are still living in a land of darkness. That Christ's life, death and resurrection has brought us salvation, and has brought down mighty thrones - but we still inescapably suffer under the weight of those old thrones. We are still hungry. The world still feels the need for a saviour. We are entitled to sing the 'bad' Psalms [Ps 13:1] as well as the 'good' ones [Ps 98:3] (maybe even Psalm 137 on a really bad day)

The Church needs to hope at Christmas. We need to look towards a saviour that is here with us now, but at the same time, has yet to come again. We have not arrived [Phil 3:12] but we are positively looking forward, 'eagerly awaiting' our 'adoption to sonship' [Rom 8:23].

In summary then, if we choose to speak of Christ's first coming at Christmas, without mentioning his second coming, then we will have very little framework with which to deal with the troubled world we find ourselves in (lament), and we will have very little motivation to help us wait for our deliverance (hope)

"But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Heb 9:26-28

At Christmas I want it to be publicly and inescapably clear that I am eagerly waiting for Him.