Advent comes from the Latin word for “arrival” or “coming,” and it is our celebration of the coming of Christ; both His past and future coming. Since the 4th century, the Western Christian church celebrated Christmas on December 25, perhaps because this was the Roman winter solace celebrated by pagan festivals. It also marked the shortest and darkest day of the year, a fitting day to celebrate the coming of King Jesus who Scripture calls the “bright morning star” (Rev 22:16).
Christmas is such a profound, complex season, full of celebrations and memories, both happy and dark. Most of us have various happy connotations of Christmas—gifts, parties, carols, special traditions, and special foods. This is by far the biggest holiday in the western world, but what is the advent season really all about?
Christmas is so much richer, darker, and more beautiful than we can imagine. I hope as this Advent blog series reflects on the richness of Christmas, that Jesus will become that much more beautiful to you this year.
Jesus came to set the slaves free. In Luke 1:26-38, we read about the angel Gabriel coming to Mary to tell her that she will bear the Christ child. This will not be the warm, fuzzy Christmas story we might expect—it is much darker and infinitely better. There are three main points I find in this account, and we will explore them each week of this Advent blog series.
The first point for this second week of Advent is that God loves us too much to give us what we expect. He always gives us what we need. (Luke 28-31) At the very outset of this passage we have something unexpected and unbelievable. From the outset, Advent is shocking. In fact, humanly speaking, there is almost nothing in this story that we would expect, specifically:
Gabriel’s appearance was unexpected.
Gabriel is a messenger angel whose name means “the mighty one of God.” He has the special task of announcing God’s truth, especially concerning the Messiah and His kingdom. Angelic appearances is not something I experience, nor is it how I expect God to answer my prayers (although there are approximately 270 Old and New Testament references to angels).
We often think of angels in terms of loving guardian angels, but the text tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” at this angelic encounter. She didn’t understand why the angel would greet her as “O favored one, the Lord is with you.” The latter phrase “the Lord is with you” was probably the most troubling to Mary, since this phrase was used in the Old Testament not as a wish, but as a statement to indicate God’s presence with someone He has called for divine service, like Gideon, David, or Asa. Mary would never have expected God would be calling her to service with the same phrase He called the great judges and kings of Israel.
The setting and recipient are totally unexpected.
Gabriel comes to a peasant teenager living in a tiny, poor village in a backwater area on the fringes of the mighty Roman Empire. Jewish girls at this time could be engaged at age 12, and were typically married at 14-15. Nazareth was such an unremarkable village that it isn’t mentioned in any Jewish literature of this period. In fact, some atheists argue that Nazareth wasn’t even inhabited in the first century. We know this is incorrect. In 2009 Israeli archaeologist, Yardena Alexandre discovered a house in Nazareth from the time of Christ. It was a very modest house with no glass or imported products. This house and older discoveries of nearby burial tombs suggest that Nazareth was “an out of the way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres, populated by Jews of modest means.”
So let’s put this in modern terms; I tell you that a marginally literate, unmarried 14-year-old living in a trailer park in small-town USA is going to have a child who will be King of the universe, and will change the course of human history. This seems crazy. Surely God would send his Son to be born in the capital city to a noble mother.
Perhaps most unexpected, Jesus wasn’t the savior Mary (or her fellow Jews) expected.
In verse 31 Gabriel said “you will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.” Most certainly Mary like other Jews in her day would have heard Gabriel’s message to mean that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, a political deliverer. He would destroy their enemies, release them from bondage to the pagan Romans, and set up the kingdom of God on earth. Notice in Luke 24:21 that after Jesus was crucified His disciples said that they “had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem (save) Israel.” In other words, they were disappointed that Jesus must not have been the messiah because He died and did not destroy the Romans. He was not the political savior they expected.
Of course we can appreciate the Jews desire and expectation for a political deliverer. Jesus will someday judge the nations and will be a political deliverer, but that was all the ancient Jews were expecting. What would have happened if Jesus hadn’t died but instead destroyed the Romans and given the Jews political deliverance? They would have been temporally free and eternally condemned. God knew they and we need not just short term deliverance but eternal rescue. Do you see how radical this message is? God doesn’t give us what we expect but what we need. God often does this in our lives. We expect and pray for something, God hears our prayers and answers, but not in the way we expect. He gives us something infinitely better.
I recently read an incredible statement of this truth penned by a soldier over 150 years ago. This soldier was killed in the civil war during the Battle of Gettysburg. As people were cleaning up from the battle and burying the bodies of fallen soldiers, they found a note in a dead soldier’s pocket. It read:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
God blesses us not by giving us what we expect but what we need.