It had been four hundred years, four hundred silent years. Four hundred years with no word from God. We think of it as the intertestamentary period, that time between the Old and New Testaments. In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, we leave the remnant of Israel trying to restore Jerusalem, still under Persian domination and in a fallen spiritual condition. For all practical purposes, Israel remained in exile. The book of Malachi is an exhortation to return to the Covenant, with severe warnings for failure to do so. And then, God quit speaking until the events surrounding the birth of Christ.
Those were years with no fresh word from God. It is hard for us to even imagine how that would be, with our access to so many different translations of the Bible and the presence of the Holy Spirit to breathe them alive to us. But as we enter this season of Advent, let us try to put ourselves in the place of the ordinary Jew at this time in history. In fact, my Advent challenge is to put myself in the place of all the characters in the Christmas story.
Advent is a word I don’t hear very much in my Baptist church, but it is something I try to observe personally. Oh I don’t do the wreath and the candles, but I do Advent readings in my quiet time. For me, Advent is a time of preparing the manger of my heart for the coming of the Messiah. Advent covers the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and this year, in 2020, Advent begins today, November 29. We think 2020 has been a long and difficult year, and it has. But try 400 long and difficult years! And we have had the blessing of the Holy Spirit with us to help us navigate this year, to comfort us in our grief and to encourage us when we are afraid. As we close this weekend of Thanksgiving, I am thanking God for access to His word and for the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the privilege of knowing Him.
Like many believers around the world, I have spent more time in prayer this year than ever before. And like many, I have clung to the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14:
“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We tend to hold on to the promise while glossing over the condition: if my people, who are called by my name. We want God to heal our land, but surely it is those other people who need to repent. This year I have repeatedly asked God to show me my wicked ways. Don’t ask unless you are serious. He has pulled off layer after layer of wicked ways. It is a part of making room for Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Christmas sermons tells us that Advent “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” I know I am poor and imperfect!
So I put myself in the place of those post-exilic Jews who were waiting, because this has been a year of waiting. Waiting for the virus to go away, waiting for a vaccine or a cure, waiting for schools to open, for jobs to return, for things to go back to normal. But more than these things, like Bonhoeffer I am waiting for something greater to come. I am waiting for a time when there will be no more death, nor more wars, no more hatred in our streets, no more broken families, no more children going hungry. Though we strive to make these things happen (and we should), I don’t think we will see the complete realization until the Messiah returns. While Israel waited for His first coming, we wait for Him to return in glory to establish His eternal kingdom. Advent looks both back in time and forward. We remember His first coming to earth as we celebrate Christmas. But oh how we look forward to His second coming as we sing these familiar words:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.