by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 21 December 2023 |
This is the time of year when I remember my bewilderment over my first Advent calendar. I was young, but old enough to have absorbed “advent” as part of my religious identity. And I wasn’t sure how that word related to Christmas! It speaks to my linguistic limitations at the time.
It also reminds me that the apocalyptic emphasis in our denominational name and identity may hinder a full advent appreciation.
If I were to make up a Christmas wish-list for advent believers, it might be to consider some of the life-changing, hope-bringing, universe-altering messages relayed at Jesus’s birth. After all, even our oft-lofted phrase, “the second coming,” would not have been possible without the first. Perhaps it’s the season to hit pause for a moment on our call to mission, return to that narrative and the proclamation of a host of angels, and consider the revelations of the first advent.
The first great commission is “go to Jesus,” not “go to all the world.”
If we look at the first good-news/gospel command, it is emphatically to “go to Jesus.” The shepherds are told, the wise men are shown, even Joseph is encouraged to hang around and welcome him. Some have a longer wait than others. The magi find “the ways deep and the weather sharp/ The very dead of winter,” as T. S. Eliot imagines it. John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin who leaps in the womb at their first meeting, appears to wait thirty years to see Jesus come to the Jordan River to begin his ministry. And though Simon and Anna meet Jesus when he’s only eight days old, they’ve waited a lifetime for a glimpse of the promise.
The main message of the first advent might be that none of our mighty callings or grand commissions have any value unless we come to know and to be changed by our encounters with Jesus. If we aren’t moved with compassion for people who struggle, if we are harder on the broken-hearted than the heart-breakers, if we fail to see hunger and illness as urgent needs to address before the preaching starts, we are missing the heart of our calling.
“Do not fear” means the same thing as “Glory to God in the highest.”
The greatest tribute and honor we give God is when we don’t try to control everything. When we feel the need to have our doctrine perfect, or to tell others what to believe, it reveals we actually worship our own understanding instead of the greatness of God. Our fears may reveal the same thing. When we are certain one false belief or one cunning deception can strip us away from God’s love and salvation, we are shrinking and dimming the glory of God.
The Bible describes perfect love as casting out fear. In loving God, we trust God’s care and reject the fear response tied to our survival-fight. We’ve been pretending since the Garden that if we worked hard enough, we could save ourselves. Fearful voices—our own, or those of our peers or our leaders, might reveal we lend more weight and honor to them than to God almighty.
Exclusivity is banished at Bethlehem.
Some of the most treasured and repeated words from the first Advent are “. . . and on earth peace, goodwill. . . .” Those words proclaimed peace to the whole earth: good will and God’s favor on all humanity. Perhaps the shepherds expected to hear peace and good will proclaimed to only their religious leaders, only the orthodox, only the wealthy or the “good people.” It might have matched the proclamations they heard from their leaders annually at the temple. But that’s not what the multi-million angels sing in their message to humanity.
Instead, we hear peace offered to everyone. Consider what that means without qualification: all peoples, all traditions, all religions or lack thereof. At that pronouncement, love and divine regard is sung as God’s favor bestowed on everyone. We can’t really say Jesus died for all without confessing that all are invited and loved, all equally respected and regarded by virtue of Emmanuel. God with us; God with us all.
The gospel sounds different to different people.
To Elizabeth, the wife of the high priest Zechariah, Jesus was the good news of a long-foretold Messiah, descended from Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. To the magi, he was the king foretold by their celestial charts and a significant manifestation in the stars. To the shepherds, he was a poor soul like them, wrapped in plain clothes, born in the protection of a livestock shelter, yet wondrously proclaimed by angels. To the compromised king of Israel, the puppet-ruler holding a desperate illusion of power, the news of Jesus was an existential threat: an excuse for violence and inhumanity.
To Simeon the advent of Jesus in his lifetime was a reward for faithfulness, evidence that God knows we need reassurance that our life work matters. To Anna, Jesus was a spiritual child, the birth of a promise to an elderly widow after a lengthy gestation of faithfulness. He was a blessing to be shouted and shared with others.
As evidence that receiving and loving Jesus is not always a call to preach or proclaim, we see his mother, Mary, keeping, treasuring, and pondering these revelations in her heart.
The Bible stories, the same events, the same words, are not read identically by all people. Neither are all people commanded to relate to and share Jesus in the same way. Some are allowed to grow in the quiet moments of living with him, seeing the truth of who he is gradually confirmed.
If we are to be rebuked where we are short-sighted or wrong, it is not done by religious experts, but by Jesus personally and gently informing us that he is doing the work of our “father’s business” in our lives, or that for some request or plan of ours, his “time has not yet come.”
The second coming we await in the appearance of Jesus is not actually the second.
This message of the first Advent stretches our considerations beyond the manger to the very end of his physical presence with us. When Jesus says he must leave so the Comforter or Advocate can abide with everyone, he is actually describing the second coming. The Comforter is the spiritual incarnation and presence of God with us, here and now. Without that understanding, our emphasis on the trinity may have “the form of godliness,” but “deny the power thereof.”
If we believe and emphasize the unity of the trinity, we might honor that claim by taking the Holy Spirit seriously. Seriously. Adventism seems derailed today, insisting our leaders, church manual policies, and doctrines are the final voice of truth to instruct conscience and belief. But if the Holy Spirit is in every way equal to God and Jesus in the triune God, then there is a higher work going on in our minds and consciences when we study and pray.
The Comforter/Advocate is here, The Word is near, our daily prayer is God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We join a holy priesthood and are privileged to communicate, relate, and learn from God directly. Leadership is obligated to honor the convictions the Holy Spirit places in the hearts of the members.
We may wisely embrace the counsel of those given the specific spiritual gifts to preach, teach, encourage, inspire, and discuss our spiritual walk and relationship with God. We will include those voices and allow them to inform us, but they don’t decree what we must believe. They are not rulers or priests serving to intercede for us. They are fellow travelers with blessed experience and slightly better road maps.
Ultimately, it is God’s Spirit who leads, convicts, communicates, and, yes, disciplines us in the journey. In this context, the second coming of God has happened and is alive and knocking at the door daily. Though there’s no need to edit all our literature or vote a formal change at the next General Conference gathering, a serious response and relationship with our Comforter/Advocate might mean the advent we await is technically the third.
Putting all the advents back into Adventism
Despite the choice in the Garden, or the series of choices thereafter, the stories prior to the First Advent are filled with occasional angels. God sends a message, God speaks to a messenger. Some of the angels seem like God. When God actually comes to abide with us, a host of angels emphatically shine and sing it. All those who received the message were called to witness God in person, to see God in a new way.
And that is good news worth sharing. Our emblematic Third Angel’s call is meant to deliver us from stale traditions, mandates, and God-imposters claiming authority. The multi-million angel choir sang the same Good News. In this advent season, angels still appear in the middle of our hectic, frenetic, fearful days, inviting us to go and find the one who demonstrates God’s love, peace, goodwill, and favor. The question remains, will Adventists embody the full Advent hope?
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness addiction recovery curriculum from AdventSource.