This Sunday we begin our celebration of Advent, which is essentially New Year’s Day for the Church. Sunday is when we start telling the story again, the story of how Jesus Christ fulfilled the story of Israel in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and how we now live with him by the Spirit and await his final return.
Every year we tell the story again, because we need to immerse ourselves in it, because it is the true story of the world. It is the report of what God is doing in the world to redeem and restore all things, the proclamation of how God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.
We immerse ourselves in this story every year because our identity comes from the stories we tell and the rituals we participate in. We immerse ourselves in THIS story because our culture loudly proclaims alternative stories that seek to tell us who we are, and claim our allegiance. Some of those stories (from McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel):
- Individualism — the story that “I” am the center of the universe
- Consumerism — the story that I am what I own
- Nationalism — the story that my nation is God’s nation
- Moral relativism — the story that we can’t know what is universally good
- Scientific naturalism — the story that all that matters is matter
- New Age — the story that we are gods
- Postmodern tribalism — the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
- Salvation by therapy — the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration
Immersing ourselves in the True Story
We combat these competing ideologies by immersing ourselves in the True Story, which is another name for the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why it matters what holidays we celebrate, and how we celebrate them. Our very identities are stake, because we live by the stories we tell ourselves. Thus it is actually a matter of life and death.
There’s nothing “magical” about celebrating the church year. There are plenty of lifeless churches that commemorate Advent “faithfully” (i.e. read the right Scriptures, fly the right colors, stick to the right themes).
But celebrating the church calendar is essentially organizing time around the gospel story, which is vital, because the alternative to organizing time around the life of Christ is to organize it around something else, like when it’s time to shop, which is a disastrous way to live.
(The American liturgical calendar, for example, is essentially New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Spring Break, Independence Day, Black Friday, CyberMonday, and then Christmas… it forms us as consumers who worship by shopping.)
We inevitably celebrate some sort of calendar, and the way we mark and celebrate time forms us in a certain way, so it might as well be the Christian calendar, right?
So what’s the deal with Advent?
The Christian calendar starts with Advent, which comprises the four Sundays before Christmas.
Advent is a misunderstood time of year – some people think it’s basically just a time to listen to Christmas music after Thanksgiving – like a “getting ready for Christmas” time. But this isn’t really what Advent is about. It’s not sentimental of fluffy.
The readings for the First Sunday of Advent this year include a desperate prayer for God to “rip apart the heavens and come down” and dire warnings about staying awake and faithful as we wait in hope for Christ’s return.
Advent presents us with something that is dissonant from our culture’s desire dwell on “nice” thoughts. Instead of sentimentality and comfort, Advent is a time of expectation, preparation, and repentance.
A season of expectation
During Advent, we cultivate expectation for God to break through into our lives. We ask God to bring joy into our struggles. We ask him to bring life into our boredom.
Advent is a time for us to look problems square in the face, and raise our voices in prayer to God to come to us. We cultivate expectancy and faith that God will break into our lives in a new way.
A season of preparation
Advent is also a time where we prepare to receive Christ in a new way. “Let every heart prepare him room,” as the song goes.
We meditate on how we can make more room for Christ in our lives, longing for him to be “born within,” preparing for Christ’s Advent in us.
A season of repentance
Advent is also a time for us to repent. As we eagerly await Christ’s second coming, and prepare more room for him in our lives today, we will inevitably be drawn into repentance. Officially it is a season of fasting in preparation for the feast of Christmastide (which lasts twelve days!).
Repentance is simply agreeing with God about reality. We seek to do this during Advent, so we can receive Christ with joy at Christmas!
So let’s immerse ourselves in the True Story once again, and have a blessed Advent! Come, Lord Jesus!