Text: Isaiah 64:1-4
My wife hates it when folks play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. And so you can imagine how it has been to learn that people here in Central Florida begin celebrating Christmas on the second week of November. Lights are up and trees and wreaths are hung all over town well before Thanksgiving. And the really remarkable thing is that nobody feels at all bad about it. You people are totally unapologetic in your Christmas creep. And you know what, I’m kind of ok with that. That’s right, I’ll come out into the open with my secret. I’ve been quietly singing Christmas carols to myself for weeks now. One of my favorites is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You know how it goes:
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, toys in every store. But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.
The song goes on to mention “A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots” as well as “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk.” It concludes by saying “Soon the bells will start, and the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.” That imagery reflects the classic Americana Christmas. It’s all about shopping, sweets, and feeling that warm spirit down in your heart. And I don’t mind this sort of American Christmas too much. It’s a lot of fun, and it reminds me of my childhood. But you know, none of those things have much to do with the Biblical picture of Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the problem of consumerism or greed. I’m sure we could talk about those things some other time. I’m just talking about the general picture. What I’m talking about is Advent.
What is Advent?
You see “Christmas,” the Christmas of the Bible and of true Christianity, is actually an historic event. It refers to the coming of the Christ, the messiah. And in the Bible, the coming of the messiah is the culmination of covenantal history: the kingdom of heaven, cosmic upheaval, and judgment. We might say that Advent is about the end of the world.
The word “advent” actually refers to both the first and second coming of Christ. In fact, prior to the first coming, most folks were only expecting one coming. They were expecting to see all of things which we associate with “the end of the world” when the messiah showed up. And He did bring a lot of those signs. But He used them in ways that they weren’t expecting. The world didn’t end, not exactly. Instead Jesus died, was raised again, and then went to heaven from where He said He would return one day. And so Advent is a time when the church remembers and commemorates the first coming of the messiah into this world, and it is a time when we look forward to and even anticipate his second coming at the end of all history.
What Does Advent Look Like?
Even though I’m not going to totally cast off the kind of Christmas imagery and celebrations that we commonly have today, I do wonder what an Advent celebration ought to look like. How is it different from what we usually do? What does Advent look like?
You can learn about Advent by reading the first few chapters of the gospels, and that is usually the focus of our churches around this time. John the Baptist is an especially Advent-oriented character. But if you really want to understand Advent, if you really want to know the context and what folks were expecting when Jesus came, you need to read the Old Testament prophets and especially Isaiah. Isaiah is where almost all of the big messianic prophecies are. Isaiah is where we are told that a virgin will conceive and bear a son (7:14). Isaiah is where we hear that, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (9:6). It is in Isaiah where we are told about the shoot from the stump of Jesse (11:1). Isaiah is where we hear, “Comfort, comfort you my people… tell Jerusalem that her warfare is over” (40:1-2). It is in Isaiah where we hear about the suffering servant of the Lord (42-43), and it is in Isaiah where we are told that God will create a new heavens and a new earth which have no death or sorrow.
But Isaiah is also clearly a book about judgment. Initially it is about the coming judgment on Jerusalem, but then we also hear about judgment against Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Cush, Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, and then the whole earth. Essentially, Isaiah’s message is that salvation is going to come through judgment and not around it. And the advent of the messiah and the kingdom of God is all part of this judgment. It comes through apocalyptic events: the heavens being ripped open, wars, death, and then miraculous restoration. In short, Advent looks like the end of the world.
Rip Open the Heavens
We see exactly this kind of apocalyptic imagery in Isaiah 64:
Oh, that You would rend the heavens!
That You would come down!
That the mountains might shake at Your presence—
As fire burns brushwood,
As fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence! (Is. 64:1-2)
Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the people of Israel, is here calling on God to literally rip open the heavens and come down in fiery judgment. Why would he do this? One reason that we have trouble thinking about this kind of thing is we are too accustomed to a spiritualization of God’s judgment. Also, we are so used to a kind of “end of the world” talk which simply freezes time and space, zaps everyone equally, and then judges individuals as to whether they will go to heaven or hell, that we miss the biblical picture of judgment. You see, for Isaiah, asking God to come in judgment was the same thing as asking God to deliver Israel from its oppressors. The fiery judgment from heaven was the way in which God would save His people.
Think about the plagues against Egypt or the fire which fell from Mt. Carmel. God saved His people through signs, wonders, and judgments. These are the kinds of things Isaiah has in mind, and now he is calling on God to “show up” again in might and terror. He goes on to mention the way God had acted in the past, “When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, the mountains shook at Your presence” (Is. 64:3), and then he adds that this God and only God saves His people in this way: “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen any God besides You, who acts for the one who waits for Him” (Is. 64:4).
This coming of the Lord in fiery judgment, what Isaiah was hoping for, wasn’t really “the end of the world” at all. Instead it was a temporal and covenantal judgment, an act of God where the people of God were rescued from their enemies, and God Himself did the work. But when did God answer Isaiah’s call and come in this kind of fiery judgment? The New Testament teaches us that Isaiah’s prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. He was the child born of a virgin. He was the suffering servant. And so, when did Jesus rend the heavens?
There are a number of possible answers. You might say that it was the incarnation itself where this happened. After all, God came down from the heavens in the first advent of the messiah. There was a miraculous light and a loud noise of sorts at Christmas. But it hardly brought the full apocalyptic signs, and the judgment was later. You could also argue that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, considered as three aspects of the same action fulfilled this prophecy. Mountains shook, the dead were raised (even if only temporarily), and we found our eternal salvation in that chain of Jesus’ works. And yet the movement seems more “up” and than “down.” A very popular argument of the recent years is that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was the big fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecies. Jesus came down in judgment against faithless Israel in order to vindicate the remnant of true believers. There are a lot of New Testament passages of which AD 70 makes a great deal of sense, especially Matthew 24.
But I’ve never felt that AD 70 could fulfill “all” of those judgment prophecies, and it seems rather that AD 70 is itself a pointer to the larger and more lasting judgment, the final judgment. After all, the book of Revelation mentions a time when the heavens are pulled apart, and this is how it describes that event:
…there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:12-17)
This is universal language, and it refers to a universal judgment and, in turn, a universal salvation. Jesus is coming again in glory, and He will finally shake up the heavens and the earth in a complete way. He will tear the sky open and simultaneously judge and deliver the whole earth. And so there is an important “not-yet” fulfillment to these prophecies. We need to keep one eye fixed towards the future.
We ought to celebrate Advent as those who are still looking forward to a salvation and a judgment, in short the second coming of the messiah. And this is why Advent has actually been a fast season throughout church history. That sounds pretty crazy to us, since it has now become an extended introduction to Christmas. But traditionally, Advent was a time of repentance, quiet introspection, and meditation upon the final judgment. Now, I’m not doe-eyed enough to think I can bring that back on any large scale. We will all be living in a giant Christmas party until the 25th, and there’s not much we can do about it for now. But we can start with ourselves. We can take time in our own lives, our devotional times (you have those right?), our prayers, and in our family times to discuss the implications of the 2nd Coming of Christ and how we ought to be living. You might think about Romans 13:11-14:
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.
Another thing we can do is make a point to connect Advent and Christmas to history. One of the big problems with Santa Claus and Rudolph is that they are basically cartoon characters who inhabit another universe. Some people tell their children that they are real, but eventually we all find out that truth. They are make believe. But Advent and Christmas are not about make-believe. No! They are about this world, the real history of God working in our world to bring about salvation. And so we should be talking about the 1st century. We need to talk about the Jews. We need to talk about bad ol’ King Herod. We need to talk about Jesus coming as the messiah to restore Israel and the kingdom of God. We have to bring our current story in line with the biblical story.
And thirdly, we should talk about evil. Pastor Duane Garner has joked that we need to keep the Satan in Christmas. He made that statement in observing certain Christmas carols that mention Satan by name. There are a few famous ones. “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.” “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray; O tidings of comfort and joy.” And while it doesn’t mention Satan, “Joy to the World” points out the reversal of the Fall: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Advent is the time of expectation, even expectation of judgment. But don’t forget, that judgment is a judgment against evil. When the messiah comes, He judges with equity, and He makes his justice known. And the peoples rejoice.
And so let’s celebrate Advent with an eschatological piety. We rejoice because we know that God has kept His covenant in sending His Son, and we rejoice because we know that He is keeping His covenant in setting all things to right. But in that rejoicing, we also seriously examine our lives and live as those upon whom the end of the ages has fallen. We walk in the light so that we can show that light to a world of darkness. We ought to look Advent to a watching world. Let us pray.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which Thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when He shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through Him who lives and reigns with Thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.