December 13, 2017

The Pattern of Advent

As I write this, it’s cold outside, as it should be, because it’s winter and cold is what winter brings. We don’t question this is as it should be because there are patterns ingrained in our world. There are patterns for our days: the sun rises in the east, it crawls toward its height by midday, and it sets in the west. The tides go in and go out. Our bodies, just the same, are made to fall into sleep and rise again.
As there are patterns for our days, there are also ingrained patterns for our seasons. Summer gives way to fall and fall gives way to winter and winter to spring and so on, indefinitely.

What do these patterns tell us? Why did God write the pattern of our days and seasons and years into the DNA of the world? I think they are physical reminders of a deeper reality, one we cannot see with our eyes but one we experience deep in our bones. That deeper reality is a pattern of redemption.

The seasons speak of the pattern of this deeper reality: Summer is warm and carefree, a type of innocence. Fall, though beautiful, is a type of dying. Winter is barrenness, gripped completely by death. And then in spring comes new life. Plants that have given their seeds in death during the fall grow and multiply.

If, as God says it does, nature speaks of him, what is he saying to us through the seasons? He’s saying redemption is in process.

The seasons perhaps were created just for this reason: so they could be a tangible picture of the process of regeneration, so they could be a picture of what God speaks of in Scripture.

Because throughout the generations covered in Scripture, a pattern emerges there, too, among its stories and poems and commands. This is the pattern: look back and then look forward.

In the Old Testament, God repetitively required his people to build altars, to recall to their children stories of his acts, and to celebrate feasts that marked his miracles. Over and over, he said to them, “Look back. Remember.” They were to remember how God made freedom from slavery and provision from lack. Why? So they’d trust him in their present circumstances, their present winter.

Later in the Old Testament, God’s refrain through the prophets then became, “Look forward.” They were to look forward to a perfect deliverer and forever rescuer, when God would make beauty from their ashes. Why were they to look forward? So that they might trust him with those ashes in their present state.

In the New Testament, the same pattern emerges. After the Gospels, the writers continually point back to the death and resurrection of Christ and then forward to his future coming, all so that we’d look at the past with gratefulness and awe, the future with faith, and the present with eyes wide open to hope.

And so, where are we in the pattern of the seasons? We are, of course, in winter--literally and figuratively-- and we feel it profoundly. We know barrenness, both literal and figurative. We know cancer. We know uncertainty. We know generational sin. We know destitution and desperation. We know loneliness and our spiritual poverty. We know how we’ve hurt and been hurt. We know what it means to groan under the weight of winter.

There are those who say the present is all we have, that we should live fully in the present and not consider yesterday or tomorrow. As they’ve done in every generation that’s watched for Christ’s return, to everyone who’s waited for all things to be made right, these people say, “Where is He? Where is your God?” Sometimes we ask this too. How could he allow this? How can this be? We question through tears.

He is enduring, that’s where he is. He is enduring the world’s winter just as we are. But there’s a difference between what he’s enduring and what we’re enduring. We know our own winter, and perhaps those of our closest friends and family. But God sees and carries all the pain in the world. He sees the vilest things done in secret. He weeps and grieves the injustices done against his children. And he endures injustices against himself as well: those who mock him; those who swell with pride, believing that they’ve created their own successes; those who question his engagement in this world even while he continues giving air to their lungs. God endures the pain of billions of people so that his work of redemption can continue and can be completed.

This is his work. Isaiah, in 25:1, says God’s plans, formed of old, are faithful and sure. God says of himself in Isaiah 42:16, “I will turn darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.”

Did you notice? God says to you, “Redemption is what I do.”

The seasons speak of it. Summer turning to fall shows us our sin leads to death. Fall turning to winter warns that death comes for each of us. Winter turning to spring screams out that there is a very real hope for new life after death.

And here we are in our winter, waiting, adventing.

So what do we do in this long, dark winter? There is a place for lament in advent. This is not something we often talk about, but if our hope is real, it also gives us the ability to look at pain without turning away. We don’t have to pretend. We must lament and lament with the lamenters, because winter is harsh. Jesus came and set things right, but that work is like the seed underground. The soul is blooming with forsythia. The soul is redeemed but we cannot see it yet.
Jesus left many things unfixed for now. This should elicit tears and tears are OK, because they are laced with the longing for the fulfilled promise.

We lace our tears with joy instead of despair when we do what all of God’s people since God’s people were have done in their own winters: we follow the pattern. We look back. And we look forward.

That is actually what we’re doing during Advent. We’re tracing the pattern God has given us.

We are looking back. We say we are waiting for the birth of Jesus, even though we know the birth of Jesus has already come. We are going through the discipline and practice of preparing as a way of looking back and remembering: God has created and God has come to dwell with us in our winter. 

We also, in this practice of Advent, are looking ahead. We are remembering the promise, that Christ will come again and we will dwell with him in the spring he has wrought.

These practices remind us that, in the present reality of winter, there is a world in motion going on beyond what we can see, because God, whom we cannot see, never sleeps nor does he slumber, and so he is at work, bringing about our final redemption, which we cannot yet see and experience.

But just as sure as the seasons that have existed before we were born and will continue long after we die, spring is coming. The Seed is dormant but it won’t be dormant forever.

Christians at Advent are together standing on the heater grate, looking, waiting, searching for signs of his coming. We look back at the first coming of Christ and we look forward to the second coming of Christ, so we can live in this present winter by faith. There will come a day when we won’t need faith or hope or advent any longer, because today’s hidden reality and today’s hidden patterns will become visible.

Isaiah in chapter 25:7-9 describes this reality to come. He says:
“The Lord will swallow up on this mountain    the covering that is cast over all peoples,    the veil that is spread over all nations.He will swallow up death forever;and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,    for the Lord has spoken.It will be said on that day,    “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.    This is the Lord; we have waited for him;    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Brothers and sisters, we cannot see it fully yet, but we can begin to do now what we will do then--let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.