What is the purpose of the ‘Advent’ season? Is it to prepare our presents, visit friends and family, sort out the decorations and make sure we have enough food? For many people, it is all of these things. The pressures of the impending Christmas season mean that people whose lives are very busy already are made even more busy by the demands of expectations and requirements that wrap themselves around the tree of Christmas like strangulating tinsel.
For those of Christian faith, ‘Advent’ is about more. It is a season of yearning, longing and remembering. The Christ who came as a baby will one day come again. The One who came in humility will return in power.Tweet
For those of Christian faith, ‘Advent’ is about more. It is a season of yearning, longing and remembering. The Christ who came as a baby will one day come again. The One who came in humility will return in power. Traditionally ‘Advent’ was to ‘Christmas’ what ‘Lent’ is to ‘Easter’ – a time of reflection, preparation, spiritual searching and re-connection with God. Over the years, this side of ‘Advent’ has been lost – but that is a shame. Now, perhaps more than at any time, we who are followers of Christ need space, time and help in remembering that the birth of Christ changed the world and that the birth of Christ assures us of the return of Christ.
The weeks before the Christmas season bursts upon us like a dawn into darkness are weeks when we can prepare for that wonderful celebration. We can stop, think, reflect, pray, and prepare. We can reconnect with the God who has come, is here, and will come again! We can allow the assurance of His promise to penetrate the hardness of our hearts and remake us. So this year, my prayer is that ‘Advent’ will be a period of waiting, perhaps of learning to wait well. Perhaps we are not good at waiting?
In the words of Henri Nouwen:
The whole meaning of the Christian community lie in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen…the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way, we can live with courage, trusting that there is a a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness and darkness…we wait together.Tweet
I want to share some simple reflections over the next few days that I pray will serve as a support and a help to all who use them. May Christ draw close to you through the Holy Spirit, that you may worship the Father more fully and sense His grace, love and embrace more deeply.
I will take four traditional themes and explore them:
God of Yearning (Hope)
God of Peace
God of Joy
God of Love
As we explore these themes together and join with millions of other Christians around the world in this Advent season, may we be strengthened by God, challenged and encouraged by Him, to remember that because He came once as a baby, He will return as a King – and that there is hope for all who come to Him because He has already come to us.
That Holy Thing
They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high:
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
O Son of Man, to right my lot
Naught but Thy presence can avail;
Yet on the road Thy wheels are not,
Nor on the sea Thy sail!
My how or when Thou wilt not heed,
But come down Thine own secret stair,
That Thou mayst answer all my need–
Yea, every bygone prayer.
George MacDonald (1824-1905)
God of Yearning.
Psalm 42 (New Living Translation)
1 As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
2 I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
3 Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”
4 My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!
5 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and 6 my God!
Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
7 I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
8 But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.
9 “O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
10 Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”
11 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!
In many ways, ‘yearning’ is a very old-fashioned word – yet it says so much. It speaks of a deep longing, a thirst, a hunger, or perhaps even a desperation for something or someone.
Take a few moments to read Psalm 42. What sense of ‘yearning’ or longing flows to you from the text? The use of ‘water’ as an image is very important – a drink for the thirsty, the tears of the struggling, the waves upon the watching. Do you ‘yearn’ for God? In what ways does that show itself – and do you ‘yearn’ to meet with God or to ‘receive’ things from Him? Do you seek His face or His hand? Talk about or think about the difference.
There is a God-shaped hole in each of us that only Christ can fill
St Augustine of Hippo, a 4th century bishop and theologian, led a life where he sought to fill the ‘gulf’ in his spirit with everything and anything, before truly turning to God. He wrote His ‘Confessions’ to tell the story of his yearning and longing and why it had taken him so long to come to true faith. In one section, he writes about his yearning”
“I have learned to love you later,
Beauty at once so ancient and so new!
I have learned to love you late!
You were within me and I was in the world outside myself.
I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was,
I fell upon the lovely things of your creation.
You were with me, but I was not with you…
You called me; you cried aloud to me;
you broke my barrier of deafness.
You shone upon me; Your radiance enveloped me;
You put my blindness to flight.
You shed your fragrance about me;
I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor.
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for You.
You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace”
The depth of Augustine’s yearning for God is clear and his words open up a whole arena of emotions and yearning in us.
This is what the writers of Psalm 42 and 43 articulate too – a deep and almost unspeakable hunger for God and His Presence. At the heart of everything that we can achieve for God there must lie a deeper hunger and passion for God. The more we love Him, the more we need Him. The more we need Him, the more we love Him! This is an ever-lifting spiral that draws into greater and deeper intimacy with God.
Yet it is entirely possibly to ‘have a form of godliness’ but to deny its power! We can be religious and faithful in church attendance, bible reading, prayer and service of God, but not ‘yearn’ for God.Tweet
Look at Psalm 42 again and think about some of the questions I have set out below, but don’t worry if you don’t think about them all – they are only suggestions! How deeply do you feel or sense your yearning for God in this way? Do you think you share Augustine’s deep ‘yearning’ for God? If not, how do you think you can ‘get’ it? Spend some time praying for this for yourself and for others you know.
- The psalmist describe himself like a thirsty deer longing for a drink (Psalm 42:1ff). This is a sense of desperation after a long wait, or hard work. The Bible is full of such images. (Isaiah 55; Revelation 22; John 7 are just a few). Are you ‘thirsty’ for God? What are you ‘thirsty’ for? Are we you part of a ‘thirsty’ church? Does the Church in your nation exhibit this thirst? How do we become ‘thirsty’
- We can believe in God’s greatness and simultaneously ‘yearn’ for Him to break into our lives, because we may have sensed His absence in our lives at specific points as we look back (v4). Struggling with God is part of ‘yearning’ for Him. Are there ways in which you have struggled with God? How have you struggled in your family, private life or in your work place? Are there things that have caused you to ‘yearn’ for God that you find painful and difficult?
- As we are confronted with God’s greatness now (v7) we can often feel a sense of waves crashing down on us, or being overwhelmed. This can be exhilarating – like surfing, or terrifying – like drowning! How is your relationship with God right now? Your answer does not need to be ‘fluffy’ and ‘nimbus’ – be honest. Are you excited by Him, bored, afraid, comforted?
- As you look to God in the future (Psalm 43:1ff) what do you longing for?
God yearns for us far more than we yearn for him:
The reality of Christian faith is that God yearns for us much more deeply than we yearn for God. It is God’s yearning that caused God to make us in the first place, that caused God to wander in the garden and call out ‘Adam, where are you?’. God’s yearning birthed Israel, sent Christ, offered God’s Son as a sacrifice. God’s yearning for us is what will one day send God’s Son back to us in person.Tweet
As you take time to think about God’s yearning for you, allow time to reflect and absorb the love and yearning of God expressed in the following passages. There are many other examples of how God yearns for us, but here are just a few: God’s yearning is:
- Like a hen yearning for her chicks (Matthew 23:37)
- Like a mother nurturing her child (Isaiah 46:3ff)
- Like a father yearning for his son (Luke 15)
- Like a friend (James 4:5)
Take time to think and reflect on these truths. Once again, you may not be able to do them all – but that does not matter at all. How do you respond to the idea that no matter how deeply you yearn for God, God yearns for you more? Do you run away from such intimacy or to it? Knowing that God inherently wants to embrace, nurture and love you is a powerful think – what does it make you want to do in response?
Advent reminds us of the invitation to come to God – will we come (Isaiah 55:1ff)
The great reality behind Advent is that the Christ who came once will come again! Our yearning for a greater intimacy with God leads into a yearning for God’s Son’s return. We are people who live in the space between the two comings. We live in the shadow of the incarnation and look forward to the dawn of the Second Coming. In the space between those two world changing events, we need the help, grace and sustenance of God to keep going!Tweet
Read the invitation of Isaiah 55 – and allow time to respond to God together or on your own. This is an invitation to ‘all who are thirsty’! Take some time to lift up others – people, nations, communities, to God as you respond personally to Him.
It was as if Infancy were the Whole of the Incarnation (Lucy Shaw)
One time of the year the new-born child is everywhere,
planted in mandonnas’ arms
hay mows, stables, in palaces or farms,
or quaintly, under snowed gables,
gothic angular or baroque plump,
naked or elaborately swathed,
encircled by Dellia Robia wreaths
garnished with whimsical partridges and pears,
drummers and drums,
lit by oversized stars,
partnered with lambs,
peace doves, sugar plums,
bells, plastic camels in sets of three
as if these were what we need
But Jesus the Man is not to be seen.
We are too wary, these days,
of beards and sandalled feet.
Yet, if we celebrate, let it be
has invaded our lives with purpose,
striding over our picturesque traditions,
our shallow sentiment,
over-turning our cash registers,
wielding his peace like a sword,
rescuing us into reality,
demanding much more
than the milk and softness
and the mother warmth
of the baby in the storefront crèche,
(only the Man would ask
all, of each of us)
always urgently, with strong
(only the Man would give
his life and live
again for love of us)
Oh come, let us adore him –
Christ – the Lord.