Perhaps you’ve never thought of it quite this way before: Our display of colors and lights, illuminating the night, echoes the display of God’s merciful heart, breaking into the night of souls and arousing them from their slumber by the light of truth (Jn 1:4–5). This is what Advent prepares us to hear.
While the mighty events of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ have passed into history, the Holy Spirit makes them alive as we bend our ear to hear afresh what they say. We come back to them because we, like the disciples in the garden, are prone to drift into sleep. But preparing for something—the first day of school, Thanksgiving dinner, or Super Bowl Sunday—causes us to enter a state of anticipation. Our attention is drawn from a million other things as it centers on the dawning event: God is for us and with us—Emmanuel.
The Scripture readings suggested above might strike you as somewhat unfitting for the Christmas season, yet they are both passages of preparation. In Romans, Paul says that “it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we believed” (Ro 13:11). And Matthew recounts the triumphal entry full of shouts proclaiming that Jesus “comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mt 21:9).
Why is salvation nearer now? It’s nearer because every hour brings our blessed hope closer to fulfillment. The Lord Jesus will come again, and yet he is here by his Spirit already. The promises of God, of which he is the embodiment, can be grasped now. As our hearts receive the Word, we can experience salvation in the midst of life’s trauma and losses, its disappointments and discouragements. Trusting that Word afresh carries us deeper into the experience of salvation. But we often need to be aroused from slumber so we can hear.
Jesus’ procession through the streets of Jerusalem ended at the temple where he stirred up a hornet’s nest. But look deeper: Jesus is confronting the hearts of the people, which have fallen asleep. Those whom Jesus confronts in the temple courts are in a palpable spiritual darkness; they are ignorant and insensible; they aren’t oriented to the Word or moved by Spirit. They’ve got other “more important” activities to engage in than seeking God in prayer—activities like shopping and sacrifices and sleep.
The money changers and pigeon sellers aren’t unscrupulous cheats, but they are robbers, and what makes them robbers is their refusal to give God what is his, namely, their hearts and attention. Instead, they busy themselves with “more important” activities, and do so in the temple, the very place that ought to prompt them to prayer—looking in hope to the horizon of coming salvation (Jn 11:25). But, no! They’re in a state of sleep, and they’re stealing others into this same darkness. Actions always reveal hearts.
Let’s not foolishly miss the point: Our activities—even our religious busyness—neither save nor draw God near. Why not? Because it’s seeking from God on our own terms: “Look what I’ve done. Quid pro quo, Lord.” And such is far from prayerful reliance that waits to receive from God.
Jesus is only too aware of the heart orientation that has made the temple a center for commerce. He knows well our failure to keep prayerful vigil, how we succumb to sleep in the still darkness of the morning. So he comes to us, not to judge but to awaken.
Jesus is the light that shines in our eyes, arousing us to life—the Word that the darkness cannot overcome, says the Gospel of John. Such confrontation is saving grace, for in the night we’re weighed down by works of darkness, says Paul. Alone in the night, acutely aware of soul pain we succumb to a myriad of home remedies. Alone in the night, we work to find safety and satisfaction. But in the dark we destroy ourselves, remaining in ignorance and insensibleness—the living dead, if you will. And the dead don’t love.
When Paul speaks of love fulfilling the law, he speaks of what we’re unable to achieve. Owning this reality, however, prepares us to receive something truly worth celebrating. Our perpetual failure means that turning to ourselves is a dead end. Our only refuge is to run to the grace of the Lord Jesus, which alone births love within us. The gospel releases us from self-centeredness; the gospel triggers a reflexive response of love that fulfills the law (Ro 13:10).
So as we journey through Advent, shall we see what Jesus sees? He sees us asleep, ignorant of and insensible to the truth of God’s heart. Yet God isn’t shaking his finger, tut-tutting our failure. Rather, he’s entered the depths of our darkness, the depths of our sleep. And there he is, turning over tables, calling: “Wake up! Grasp the Word of salvation. It’s nearer than when you first believed; ‘The word is near to you, in your mouth and in your heart’” (Ro 13:11; 10:8).
The Christmas message is that the Word of hope which we desperately need has broken into our darkness—God’s heart is turned towards us. Advent prepares us to hear this announcement again, so that it may plunge deeper into our hearts, making us lovers of God and each other.
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