I May Have Gotten Advent Wrong

It hit me with the force of a 2×4 up the side of the head at a recent Advent worship service that I was attending.  I may have gotten Advent all wrong!  The preacher was working with the texts from the Gospel of Luke about the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79; 3:1-6) and the prophetic foreshadowing of it from Malachi 3:1-3.  It was that Malachi text that pulled me up short –

“Behold, I send My messenger,
And he will prepare the way before Me.
And the Lord, whom you seek,
Will suddenly come to His temple,
Even the Messenger of the covenant,
In whom you delight.
Behold, He is coming,”
Says the Lord of hosts.

“But who can endure the day of His coming?
And who can stand when He appears?
For He is like a refiner’s fire
And like launderers’ soap.
He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.”

As the preacher called us to Advent faithfulness, urging us to clean ourselves up and get ourselves ready for the coming of the Lord – a message that I myself have preached many times – including as recently as three weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent – I was unexpectedly sideswiped by the text.  I had an experience of the Holy Spirit taking the written Word of God in Scripture and turning it into an experience of the living Word from God in my heart.

The Malachi text was echoing in my head to the lovely strains of Handel’s Messiah – “And He shall purify the sons of Levi. . .” (My second favorite part of the work after the Hallelujah Chorus) – when suddenly the force of the words clobbered me! “And HE shall purify.”  Why hadn’t I seen this before?  I opened my Bible to check examine it more closely, and sure enough, Handel got it exactly right.   We don’t clean ourselves up for the Lord, the purifying work what the Lord does to us.

He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.

Sitting there in that Advent service, I instinctively bounced from Malachi to Psalm 51, David’s great Penitential Psalm, one of the primary scripts in my own little drama of guilt and grace, and I found the very same truth voiced again –

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin… Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow… Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.  (51:1-2; 7; 10)

At least in these two texts, purification is not something that we do to somehow get ourselves ready to be with the Lord; it’s something that the Lord does to us, in us, and for us.  In Malachi 3 and Psalm 51 we are the passive recipients of the Lord’s purifying work.  He cleans us up, and not the other way around.  As I thought about this, I remembered something that I heard the Reformed theologian Michael Horton say in a conference that was held here at Northway last year, and that he explored more fully in his book Christless Christianity – 
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Let me be a little more precise about what I am assuming to be the regular diet in many churches across America today: “do more, try harder.” I think that this is the pervasive message across the spectrum today. It can be exhibited in an older, more conservative form, with a recurring emphasis on moral absolutes and warnings about falling into the pit of worldliness that can often make one wonder whether we are saved through fear rather than faith.

…At the same time, more liberal bodies could be just as shrill with their “do more, try harder” list on the left and their weekly calls to action rather than clear proclamation of Christ.  Reacting against this extreme version of fundamentalist and liberal judgmentalism, another generation arose that wanted to soft-pedal the rigor, but the “do more, try harder” message has still dominated—this time in the softer pastels of Al Franken’s “Stuart Smalley” than in the censorious tone of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady,” both of Saturday Night Live fame. In this version, God isn’t upset if you fail to pull it off. The stakes aren’t as high: success or failure in this life, not heaven or hell. No longer commands, the content of these sermons, songs, and best-selling books are helpful suggestions. If you can’t get people to be better with sticks, use carrots.

…(But) Despite significant differences across these generations and types of church ministry, crucial similarities remain. The focus still seems to be on us and our activity rather than on God and his work in Jesus Christ. In all of these approaches, there is the tendency to make God a supporting character in our own life movie rather than to be rewritten as new characters in God’s drama of redemption. (www.monergism.com)                                                    ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Through the years, Advent in my hands has become the quintessential “Try harder! Do More!’ season of the church year.   It’s been all about what we’ve got to do to get ourselves ready for Christmas, the preparations that we’ve got to make in order to ”qualify” for the gift.  But as Paul told the Romans in that part of the book that we’re looking at right now in our noon Bible Study on Wednesdays – “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.  But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…” (4:4-5). In other words, if I’m getting something because I’ve worked hard for it, then it’s not really a gift at all but rather something that I’m owed. It’s a wage, a payment for services rendered.  But if I haven’t done anything to earn it, and I’m given it anyway, well then, that truly is a gift, a matter of grace!  And isn’t Christmas about the inexpressible gift of God’s Son (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 9:15)? 

I’m afraid that the way I’ve traditionally approached Advent has reduced Christmas to a wage – something that I’m owed for all of my hard work; something that I deserve because of all the strenuous efforts that I’ve made to get myself ready for it, rather than the pure gift that the Bible and the logic of the Gospel tells me that it is.  I fear that I’ve gotten Advent wrong, and then, even worse, I’ve misled you about it as well. 

 It appears that Advent is not about us cleaning ourselves up for the coming of Christ, as if that’s something that we are even capable of doing to ourselves, for ourselves, but rather, Advent, at best, is a time for us to acknowledge our own poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3).  Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican that Jesus told (Luke 18:9-14).  The Pharisee embodies how I’ve tended to approach Advent – “Look at everything I’m doing for you, Lord!  Notice all of the sacrifices that I’m making to show you just how serious I really am about you, Lord.  Aren’t you impressed?   Can I get my Christmas present now?”  But the Publican embodies the true spirit of Advent when he simply prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).  Just like the Publican in this story, cleaning myself up and getting myself ready for the coming of the Christ – the usual Advent appeal – is a “bridge too far.”  The most that I can possibly hope for is the honest recognition that I desperately need some cleaning up.  And so it is that I’m just now beginning to realize that Advent isn’t about me doing things to get myself ready for the coming of the Savior, but is rather a season for me to recognize once again just how thoroughly and desperately I really need a Savior. 

Ironically, it’s this realization that there is nothing that I can do to make myself ready for Christmas, or render myself worthy of Christmas, made here in these last few days of Advent, that turns out to actually get my heart ready for it, fully prepared for the gift that Christmas brings – “Born this day for you in the city of David is a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).  DBS+

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