Advent: The Practice of Waiting

Advent: The Practice of Waiting

I am very sentimental about Christmas, and my list of favorite things is long and in no particular order. I love all of it, and I have for as long as I can remember.

But if I had to boil it down and sum up the magic in one word, it would be anticipation. The hoping and the wondering and the waiting.

On the church calendar, we call this season Advent. It’s a time when Christians learn how to hope through the practice of waiting. It’s a season of expectant longing for the return of God’s promised rescuer, Jesus.

Christians throughout the world have different ways of celebrating Advent. Some light candles. Some sing songs. Some eat candies. Some give gifts. Some hang wreaths. Many of us do all of the above.

But way before Advent became something the church celebrated, God’s people waited. Waited for Him to make good on His promises. Waited for Him to send a Rescuer. Waited for God’s promised Messiah to come and put everything back together and make every wrong right.

Isaiah frames the promise this way in chapter 9, vv. 6-7:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Fast forward to the New Testament, and we’re introduced in Luke 2 to a man named Simeon, who still believed this promise 700 years later. For us, that would be like waiting for the fulfillment of a promise that was made at the beginning of the Renaissance era. That promise is old, and Simeon has been waiting his entire life to see it happen. (Tell your kids they can wait for their Christmas presents.)

What does Luke say about Simeon? He’s a righteous man. The Holy Spirit is upon him. And he’s not going to die until he meets the Messiah. That’s quite a promise.

But in Luke 2, it happens! After all these years of waiting, Simeon scoops up Jesus and holds God’s Messiah in his arms. Like He always does, God comes through on His promises.

And Simeon’s response, at the end of his life with his hope fulfilled, is basically, now I can die.

I’ve received some great gifts in my life. My favorite as a kid was an Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway Orlando Magic jersey, black with white pinstripes. Oversized, of course. It was the most incredible moment of my 9-year-old life.

But I wasn’t ready to die! In fact, I have no idea where that jersey is today. As good as it was, it wasn’t the fulfillment of my deepest longings. (Well, maybe for a second.)

But that’s how good the gift of Jesus is! The wait is over. The world’s peace and joy has come. The light and glory of God has come into the world. Now I can die.

Jesus is the last gift you and I will ever need. You can have peace in life and in death. You can find comfort in the present and hope for the future. If you have Jesus, you really can say, I can die now.

That doesn’t mean the waiting will be easy or that life will be painless. That’s why we need Advent, after all, to get better at waiting. But like Simeon centuries ago, we can do so with hope in the faithfulness of God to make good on His promises.

We have wonderful promises to believe this Advent season! Jesus will finish His redemptive work when He comes again, and the waiting will finally be over.

What are you waiting for this Advent season?

Taking A Closer Look at Hagar and Sarah

Good writers have many techniques. They know when to surprise their readers, when to confront their readers, and when to move their readersall to make their readers think.

In Galatians 4, Paul desires to demonstrate that life by the Spirit is superior to enslavement to the flesh. So, he uses an advanced rhetorical technique. A brilliant writer, who had been trained in the most prestigious of classrooms, Paul invites his first-century readers to explore the differences between these two ways of living through allegory.

Understanding Allegory

Allegory is a literary device that enables writers to use a story, poem, or word picture to make a broader point. Allegory relies on connections or associations. Writers who use allegory trust that their readers will understand that the story being told actually has a deeper meaning. They hope their readers will realize that the drama unfolding on the page actually articulates a broader truth.

Allegory sounds complex when you try to define it. But perhaps this example will make it easier to understand:

Think of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. A casual reader could argue that Lewis simply tells the story of a mystical world that was rescued by a talking lion. But those who are familiar with Lewis’ deep Christian faith, and those who are familiar with the story of the Bible, are able to recognize the connections and associations between Lewis’ fantasy world and the story of Scripture. They recognize that Narnia isn’t merely about kings and queens and spells and animals. They see that Aslan portrays Jesus, even as Edmund represents Judas.[1]

In the same way, in Galatians 4:23-31, Paul uses a story that his readers know well to help them understand a concept that remains difficult for them to grasp. Paul uses the story of Abraham and his two wives—Sarah and Hagar—to convince his readers that life defined by adherence to Old Testament law is not superior to the life that Christ offers through faith.

To understand the point that Paul is trying to make, it’s important that we remind ourselves of the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

Looking Back

Beginning in Genesis 11, we read that God called Abraham to marry Sarah and then promised Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation, through which all the world would be blessed. Abraham trusts God’s promise. But after some time passes, Abraham and Sarah remain childless. It seems as if God’s promise is in jeopardy.

So, Sarah concocts a plan. She suggests Abraham sleep with her slave, Hagar, saying “it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Abraham consents to the plan, and soon Hagar bears a son named Ishmael.

However, when Abraham reaches his 99th birthday, God comes to Abraham and reaffirms His promise, declaring that Sarah will indeed bear Abraham a son. The elderly couple finds this news hard to believe. But in Genesis 21, it happens. Sarah gives birth to Isaac. God’s promise is fulfilled.

Paul’s Point  

This story would have been familiar to Paul’s first-century readers. In the same way that we know Dorothy traveled to Oz or that Simba reclaimed Pride Rock from his evil uncle, Paul’s first-century readers in Galatia would have been well aware of the contours of Abraham’s story.

This is why Paul uses it as an allegory in Galatians 4.

He wants his readers to associate the benefits of life by the Spirit according to God’s promise with Sarah, and the deficiencies of life according to the flesh with Hagar.

And so he writes, “Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free. His son by the slave woman was born according the flesh, but his son by the free woman was the result of a divine promise” (Gal 4:22-23).

Paul makes clear “these things are being taken figuratively” (Gal 4:24). He wants his readers to recognize that these two women and their sons are being used allegorically in his argument to represent the differences between God’s covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai (i.e., the covenant by which God’s people had to maintain the entirety of the Old Testament law) and the covenant made by God to Abraham (i.e., the covenant in which God promises Abraham that He will unilaterally act on Abraham’s behalf, blessing Him immensely and using him, in turn, to bless others).

Paul invites his audience to consider which way of life is better: Trusting in your own ability to keep a law that’s impossibly perfect? Or trusting a promise-keeping God, who did what He said He would do for Abraham?

Paul’s hope is that his readers will see that, like Isaac, they are children of God’s promise. They have been made part of God’s family through God’s unilateral work on their behalf. They no longer need to live as if they are slaves to rules and regulations that suggest they might earn God’s favor. They simply need to trust what God has done for them by faith.

Diving Deeper

Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4 has captured the attention of scholars and theologians for centuries. Much as been written about the contours and complexities of Paul’s writing in this chapter. Numerous articles and sermons exploring the topic are available online. In my opinion, however, no one explains this passage with more clarity than Charles Spurgeon, the renowned 19th-century Baptist preacher. If you’d like to read his comments on the text, click here.

[1] It is worth noting, however, that Lewis maintained his Narnia stories weren’t allegories but “supposals.” For Lewis, a story was only allegorical so long as its tangible characters represented an intangible idea. (The English professor had quite concrete definitions for literary devices.) Indeed, Lewis maintained that a character can allegorically represent sacrificial love as a concept, but a character cannot allegorically represent Jesus Christ (a real person). For more, see “Why Narnia Isn’t Allegorical.”

Our Hero. Our Hope.

Guest Author: Rachel Gorman

It took me most of my adolescence to truly meet Jesus—bad decisions, misdirection, lies and chaos followed me through high school and college. It wasn’t until the end of college that I could say I truly wanted to know Jesus. During this time I read Philip Yancey’s excellent book The Jesus I Never Knew. I’ll never forget reading about what he describes as the “flannel board Jesus.” (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 85). Somehow, I’d missed actually seeing the true character of Jesus for the first twenty-one years of my life. I only saw the flannel board Jesus, packaged neatly for Sunday school—one dimensional and flat. What kind of hope is there in a story without a hero?

Looking back, I think I would have admitted that this version of Jesus wasn’t someone I really wanted to know or spend time with—and definitely not follow or obey. A flannel board Jesus is boring. A flannel board Jesus is weak. There’s no hope with this type of character. No hero to be found. But then I read these words I’ll never forget: “Two words one could never think of applying to the Jesus of the Gospels: boring and predictable. How is it then that the church has tamed such a character—has, in Dorothy Sayers’ words, ‘very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.’” (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 23)

With those words the flannel board was beginning to fade, and I was starting to see the Lion of the Gospels. Jesus is not weak. Jesus is not predictable. Jesus is not tame. Jesus is not boring. Jesus is Aslan, the powerful and kind lion in the Chronicles of Narnia books. That was someone I wanted to know. The hero of the story was beginning to take shape.

As I began this journey to put away the flannel board Jesus and know the real Jesus, I still struggled to understand which parts of me and my personality were acceptable. As a Christian, was I allowed strength and femininity? Was I allowed to feel bold and gentle? I was trapped by these thoughts—I was too much and never enough. The world with its misconceptions, and often other Christians, dictated how I should act and what I should feel. Always too much. Always never enough. Since all expectations contradicted each other, I was at a loss.

It was when I discovered these powerful words by Dorothy Sayers, in her book Are Women Human?, that I started to finally feel free. Accepted. Wanted. She said,

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human?, 68).

As I read these words, my confusion began to dissipate, and I started to see clearly for the first time. Here was my hero. The Jesus Sayers describes, the real Jesus of the Gospels, pulled at all my misconceptions about myself, my world, and Jesus himself. Sayers’ words simultaneously did two very powerful things for me: First, I’m not the only woman to feel this dichotomy between who I am and who the world tells me I should be. And second, here is a man I want to know, here is the Jesus who accepts me, frees me, and puts my fears and insecurities to rest. I can trust this man.

Whoever you are, no matter how you grew up, what you’ve experienced, what kind of hope you’re longing for, or situation you need fixed—I believe we are all looking for hope. The longer I’m alive and the more people I begin to truly know, I’m realizing every one of us has experienced sadness, longing, and loneliness. Even if it’s hidden and no one else knows—not one of us is exempt. We long for hope.

And because we know Jesus,—because we know the hero, and much more importantly, because he knows us!—we are gifted the very hope for which we search. This is the hope promised in God’s Word: that God keeps His promises, that we are not alone. And that we can find our hope in the Scriptures through Jesus. I love theses verses in Hebrews, “We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let go. It’s an unbreakable spiritual lifeline, reaching past all appearances right to the very presence of God where Jesus, running on ahead of us, has taken up his permanent post as high priest for us.” (Hebrews 6:18-20, MSG)

Maybe you’re like me, always feeling too much and not enough, or maybe you’ve always understood your place in the world. Maybe you grew up knowing Jesus as a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional hero, or maybe you’re longing to put away the Sunday School flannel board and meet the lion, Jesus. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19, NIV) Our souls are anchored.  Our hearts are secure. No matter the storm, we are tethered to the very Hope that sets us free. We have Jesus, we have the Lion, we have the Hero. All is not lost.

Adapted for this blog post from God’s Wisdom for Women by Patricia Miller and Rachel Gorman.