A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. –Isaiah 40:3
The church has two great joyous holidays: Easter and Christmas, the celebrations of our Lord’s Resurrection and his Incarnation. Both these two holidays follow a season of repentance and preparation. Lent precedes Easter, and Advent comes before Christmas.
Nobody seems to mind Lent. (They may not observe it, but very few people seem opposed to it.) Advent, on the other hand, is distinctly counter- cultural. The culture we live in is in a hurry to celebrate Christmas. People talk about “getting into the holiday spirit” and go from party to party munching cookies and drinking eggnog.
I used to think this was what made Advent so demanding. When the people around them are celebrating, even the best Christians don’t want to go through December moping. We don’t like to fast, but especially we don’t want to fast while our friends feast.
(To be frank, I’m not sure that fasting is the best witness. The gospel is supposed to be good news. When we sulk our way through Advent, the message we convey to non-Christians is that Christianity is like having Seasonal Affective Disorder — except it keeps going through the spring and summer.) As I think about these holidays, however, I see there is another problem with Advent, one it shares with Lent. Our observance of these seasons of preparation tend to be lopsided. We focus too much on our sin and brokenness.
(By “our sin” I mean mine. And yours. And everyone else’s. Part of what makes it so difficult to do the right thing is that we live in a fallen world. What made the good Samaritan good is that the man he stopped to help could have been a robber waiting to ambush anyone foolish enough to help.)
I’m not saying we should throw in the towel and go along with our culture’s desire for a ho-ho-ho holly-jolly Christmas. We have to pause and reflect on our sin long enough to remember why the birth of a savior is good news. We have to recognize that even the very best things we do are flawed, and most of what we do is worse. We have to remember that our problem is so severe that only God can fix it.
But that’s all. We don’t have to wallow in it. Once we have recognized the problem, we need to transition to hope.
Isaiah said to prepare the way of the Lord. Hope is part of preparation. You don’t straighten out highways unless you think someone’s going to use the road.
Repentance means “changing your mind.” But we don’t just change our mind about sin, and decide to avoid it. We also change our mind about God. We remember the things we’re so prone to forget about God: his love and mercy and most of all his faithfulness.
This Advent, let’s remember how we got into this mess. But let’s also remember who got us out. Let’s resolve to spend more time this season remembering our God who loves us and has acted in Christ to redeem us. And, by the way, have a Merry Christmas!