I am currently in a state not too dissimilar to that which the first century Jews were in. A state of longing and anticipation for something that has been promised but never seems to be happening. I am waiting to hear whether we will exchange contracts on a new house today – as I was yesterday and the day before that and the week before that – so that we can move in next week.
It is possible that the agony the first century Jews felt was more extreme than my ongoing frustration with the inadequacies of the English housing market’s legal system. They had the great promises of Isaiah from 700 years earlier, regarding the fact that comfort was on its way (Isaiah 40). They could read Malachi from 400 years earlier, promising that the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings (Malachi 4:2), which is a mixed metaphor if ever there was one, but we get the point that it’s good news. Then silence. There is no permanent remedy for their sins, just the ongoing grind of sacrifices.
There is no direct access to God for most people. What there is, is the fear of punishment for failing to keep God’s laws. They are waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah, for the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 25:25). The word ‘Advent’ means waiting.
Waiting, in some respects, is the easiest thing in the world. Waiting is what we do when we have no choice, no longer any control over an outcome. But, in other respects, it is extremely difficult and unsettling, as anyone who has waited for medical results or for news of a loved one would know. How terrible it would be if we were still waiting for the coming of the promised Christ? If we didn’t know when, or, perhaps even whether, he would come? To appreciate the Advent season fully, we need to identify with the Jews who lived before Christ.
I have come to love the carol O come, o come Emmanuel, although I’m not a great fan of minor musical keys in general and it reminds me of boarding school. The theology and emotions expressed seem so accurate. There is good news just around the corner, but at the moment things are pretty dire. That’s the essence of the carol, albeit some of the majesty is lost in my summary.
Having put myself in the dire state the Jews were in, of bemoaning my distance from God, the laws I have to follow and the regular sacrifices I have to make, the fear that death is the end, the news that God has finally arrived, that He has moved into the neighbourhood, hits me with the full force of its implications. God – the God who created the Universe – became fully human and was born to human parents in a geographical location in our world at a chronological moment in time. It’s actually too staggering for my mind to take in. And not only is there joy that the Messiah has come, but Jesus’ birth means that we can trust God’s promises, even if we have to wait for their fulfilment.
God is faithful. He promised He would come, and He came. He promised salvation, and He delivered it. It’s a certainty the English house buying market can only aspire to.