Clinging to God’s Promise of Joy in a Dark World
“‘Tis the season to be jolly.” In our consumer-driven society, the season began the minute the trick-or-treaters took off their costumes. The Reese’s Pumpkins were gloriously transformed into Reese’s Christmas trees overnight. Little Debbie does her best work during this time of the year, as Christmas Tree Cakes fill the shelves. The stores we visit daily suddenly become winter wonderlands with lights, decorations, trees, and gifts. Home Alone (the second one is better, by the way) is on every channel, and Nat King Cole still makes children smile and giddy as they hear “Deck the Halls” on repeat. ‘Tis the season, indeed, and it all starts in October and November.
It is difficult to miss the cultural hustle towards the Christmas season. We rush to the lights and carols, but why? Is it nostalgia? Is it excitement about being with family and friends? Is it merely a nice distraction from the rather dim routines of daily life? I am sure these play a significant part in our hasty movements toward the holidays. Still, I cannot help but wonder whether we crave the joyful lights because we intuitively know that we live in the dark.
Our devices, as helpful as they can be, give us instant access to evil and injustice, and we scroll without ceasing, looking for a laughable meme to combat the sorrowful state of our world. It is dark out there, and we crave the light. So, perhaps we rush towards the light out from a place of lament and longing. Perhaps, we happily embrace Christmas’ coming while also recovering the beauty of Advent.
Welcome to Advent
Advent is about awaiting the arrival or coming of the Lord Jesus Christ with resilient hope. He came once, and he will come again. Thus, we experience our Advent while waiting for Christ’s Kingdom to be fully realized among us in the renewed heavens and earth. During Advent, the church looks to the past, present, and future. We look back to those like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon to discover how they awaited and anticipated their coming King. Their past faithfulness gives us encouragement and instruction for our present waiting as we look to Christ’s second coming, when injustice, sin, evil, and death expire. There will be joy and delight, but, first, we must wait.
Tish Harrison Warren is right when she says, “We begin our Christian year in waiting. We do not begin with our own frenetic effort or energy. We do not begin with the merriment of Christmas or the triumph of Easter. We do not begin with the work of the church or the mandate of the Great Commission. Instead, we begin in a place of yearning. We wait for our king to come.”1
Advent reminds us that darkness is not seasonal but situational and innate to the human condition and cosmos. Darkness precedes, so we yearn. To find the deep joy of Advent, we must go through the dark, not around it. As Fleming Rutledge puts it, “Advent begins in the dark.”2
I do not want to come across as if I have a morbid fascination with the dark, but acknowledging the dark, not escaping it, heightens our longing and looking for the light to come. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness” (Isa. 9:2). If you have ever been lost during the night, you know the gladness of seeing a “city on hill.”
Expecting Joy and Delight
Though many rush into the Christmas season, others of us resist it because we experience pain, loss, grief, and sadness that seems to intensify during this time of the year. Yet, Advent speaks directly to the ache for joy and delight precisely because it is honest about sorrow.
It can be meaningful to reflect on the first story Luke tells – the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke. 1:5-25). In this story, we have a couple who is “righteous and blameless” but unable to conceive and they are well along in years. Zechariah is a priest, and Elizabeth comes from a priestly lineage; they keep law out of devotion to Yahweh, yet their faithfulness doesn’t defeat their frustrations. The reality of infertility was a source of social shame and “disgrace” for Elizabeth (1:25). Indeed, Advent begins in the dark.
When Zechariah gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to burn incense in the Temple’s holiest place, we see the flicker of hope as his prayers, like the smoke, rise to the Lord. An angel of the Lord bursts onto the scene to inform Zechariah that God’s grace is breaking in, for they will have a child named John, whose name means “the Lord is gracious.” In describing all that this coming prophetic figure would be and do, Gabriel promises that “there will be joy and delight” (1:14). Zechariah’s disbelief is understandable yet reveals a cynical outlook on God’s coming grace. For his distrust, Gabriel renders Zechariah mute until John arrives. The imposed silence is a rebuke and an invitation to stop talking and start watching for God’s grace.
Whereas Zechariah was speaking and now silent, Elizabeth was quiet and is now speaking, empty and filled. She gets the last word, and she celebrates the grace to come. The miracle does not take away the years of mourning but serves as a reminder that God promises joy and delight, and he makes good on his promises. John graces his parents but will point ultimately to the one in whom our “joy is complete.”
In Advent, we don’t try to escape the dark by hurrying to the Christmas tree; we sit and wait, sometimes in silence; we watch for God’s coming grace in our brokenness.
2 Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 253.