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In November I bought an Advent calendar for my kids, in keeping with family tradition. Behind each window is a small piece of chocolate and a Scripture verse that tells a little of the Christmas story.
When all the windows are closed, the calendar depicts a lovely scene: Mary and Joseph and a few tidy shepherds huddle closely around a well-fed baby, cozy under a pile of blankets, surrounded by fresh hay. Two suspiciously medieval kings kneel before him, and a well-behaved sheep looks on. The group has artistically arranged itself in front of an elegant redbrick-and-stone stable that, while rustic, looks to have been cleaned recently. The night is clear and star-lit—all is calm, and all is bright.
If the savior of the world had to be born in ancient times, this is where he should have been born, right? After all, cleanliness is next to godliness—these are his kind of shepherds.
Or are they?
On the first Sunday in Advent, my family and I gathered around a wreath equipped with four candles and lit the first after reading Isaiah 60:2–3:
“Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD rises and appears over you. All nations will come to your light; mighty kings will come to see your radiance.”
This is a passage about the kind of hope that erupts when God does something magnificent among mortals. The kind of hope that came to earth when Jesus fulfilled thousands of years of prophecy and expectation and placed himself at the mercy of a clumsy new mother and a poor carpenter, huddling for survival in a dirty barn.
God first mentioned his coming redeemer in the same breath as the curse on fallen humanity, when sin entered the world (Genesis 3:15). He spoke of his plan in a promise to Abram (later Abraham) nearly 2,000 years before Jesus’ birth (Genesis 12:3). And Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 9:1—7 had marinated for more than 700 years before they were fulfilled. In a sense, the first Advent lasted thousands of years. That’s a long time to wait. That’s a long time to expect a rescuer—and for those expectations to take on a life of their own.
The world of that first Advent was nothing like what our celebrations usually depict. Far from merry and bright, the world was decorated with oppression, desperation, and injustice. Most of the world had no knowledge of a coming Messiah, the gift God had promised to a world that had largely forgotten him almost as soon as Noah’s ark had come to rest on dry land. He was promised to arrive among a people who did remember God, but who were in no place to produce royalty—they, like so many others, were at the mercy of a brutal empire growing in power.