The Advent season to all that believe in the story of Jesus is a very special time, not only as a celebration of the birth of a poor itinerant preacher from Nazareth. It is a celebration of hope. And the meaning of this celebration goes back far beyond the birth of Jesus. We all know that Jesus was most probably not born on December 25th, or anytime during the winter for that matter. It is fairly accepted by most scholars of church history that the holiday, or holy day, which celebrates his birth was selected arbitrarily to coincide with various holidays practiced by non-Christians during those ancient days. And what is celebrated is not so much the birth of Jesus as the birth of hope. And to understand that you have to understand the over all story of man in relation to God as it is understood through the traditions and scriptures of the Jewish people.
Now the Jews had been once a proud and powerful people. Jerusalem was a holy city, once the home of King David and Solomon. But it was not long after those powerful kings that the Jews were conquered, first by themselves, during a period of internal unrest that split their kingdom into two parts, Israel and Judah. Then both kingdoms would find themselves laid waste by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, sending the ten tribes of Jewish people into exile throughout the known (and perhaps even the unknown) world.
When the children of Judah, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, finally returned to their homeland after the death of Alexander the Great, they would be a conquered people, ruled by the Selucids. All during their exile in foreign lands, various men who claimed to speak for God promised a man would come who would restore their lands and usher in a period of peace. Well who could argue with that? The Jews had seen enough war to last a hundred lifetimes. And these guys promised this Messiah, as he was known, would bring with him a thousand years of peace. Those who kept the faith and believed in God would be saved and those unrighteous would be punished. This gave the people hope to sustain them through hundreds of years of persecution and suffering.
And when the land was beset by the Romans, in the first century before Jesus, there were hundreds of men who tried to rally the people to fight against the oppressors claiming to be the one of whom the prophets spoke, hoping to ignite a spark of liberty among the people to rise up and throw off the tyrants. This was the world into which Jesus was born. But there is a greater hope beyond this. And those who believe in Jesus, who believe he was the promised Messiah, hold onto this hope. They believe that Jesus was more than merely a guy who came to restore Israel.
According to the tradition, and the books supposedly written by Moses, humankind once lived an ideal life in harmony with the divine. That is the Garden of Eden myth. According to the story, mankind fell out of harmony when Eve and Adam ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once man’s innocence was lost, there was no way to regain it. God had spoken. S/He had said that once humanity ate of that tree, they would die. And sure enough, people die. There’s no denying that. Now that story can by symbolic of a thousand different things. And only the fundamentalist would claim that it is historical fact. But one way or the other, mankind no longer lives in perfect harmony with the divine.
But there was a promise, according to the prophets, if you choose to interpret their prophesies that way. What if the promise was not that the Messiah would come and simply restore the kingdom of Israel for the people who lived there, but would come and restore mankind’s connection to the divine spirit? What if the Messiah were a person who could bring us all back to that Garden of Eden, where there is no death, and no conflict?
The books set down by Moses claimed that the sins of the people could be pardoned if a perfect lamb were sacrificed in their place. They had been told that the only way to be forgiven of sin was to kill something else in the place of the sinner. And lambs were frequently sacrificed for the sins of the people. And, once a year, the sins of the people were symbolically placed around the neck of a goat, and that goat, the scapegoat, was released out into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people. And of course, out in the wilderness, that goat usually died. Christians believe that these laws were a foreshadowing of the arrival of Christ (Greek for deliverer—Messiah).
Now perhaps they were and perhaps they weren’t.
Perhaps those laws were some feeble attempt on the part of a group of people to regain the divine connection in some way. Perhaps they thought that if they followed this complex code of behavior, they would once again be in harmony with the divine. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether that fall from grace (if humankind was ever in harmony with God to begin with) every really happened or not. What matters is that, as far as these people were concerned, it did. And whether or not anybody had to die, had to be sacrificed to expiate the sins of humanity, doesn’t matter. What matters is that these people thought so. And Jesus thought so.
Jesus came teaching this message that we could all be in harmony with God if we did two things, loved God, and loved one another. And with that harmony came an end to all fear, because there was no death, nothing to be feared. Whether Jesus was this Messiah or not doesn’t matter. Jesus may have believed himself to be the Messiah, or at the very least, came to see that some of the people would see him as the Messiah. And if they did see him as the Messiah, then he could reconnect humankind with the divine. And maybe, just maybe, he really was the Messiah. Either way, by his actions, he made himself the Messiah.
Jesus may well have thought, “You people believe somebody has to die for you in order for you to be reconnected to The Father? Fine, then I’ll die for you if that’s what it takes.” Or maybe it was all true. And Jesus really was God become man and really did walk with us and teach us, and then suffer and die, so that we could live in harmony with God. As Paul Tillich, the Lutheran Theologian says, it isn’t important. What matters is that he did put himself up on that cross. There is little doubt that Jesus knew where his teachings were going to eventually put him. So once Jesus came, and accomplished his mission, humankind now had the hope of being in Grace of God, that is, in harmony with the divine, call it what you will. Jesus brought the light of hope to humanity. That is what Advent celebrates, not simply his birth.
And it all began with John the Baptist. We know more about John, historically, than we do about Jesus. Flavious Josephus wrote more about him. According to the bible account, he was Jesus’ cousin. Somehow this seems a little unlikely to me because there are numerous occasions where John does not seem to know Jesus. But then I have many cousins I don’t know too. So who knows? Anyway, John was out there in the wilderness preaching a message of repentance. He was calling on people to turn to God and telling them that the Messiah was about to come. It is interesting that he did not consider himself to be the promised deliverer. In Matthew, Chapter 3, we are told of John:
In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
What John saw was that this race of people somehow felt justified by God because of who their ancestors were. John said that following those rules and regulations would not bring you any closer to God. After all, most of these people made a reasonable attempt to keep to the law, but they didn’t feel any closer to God. How do we know this? Because they were all out in the wilderness listening to John blast them with the message that they were all screwed up. How long would any preacher last today if s/he did nothing but tell his or her congregation how messed up they were? Let’s face it, you can’t solve your problems until you acknowledge you have problems. John is, in essence, asking whether or not they think God gives a damn about who some person’s multiple great grandfather is. It’s not about whom you know. And so he called upon people to change their lives. He led them in ritual bathing, a symbolic gesture of cleansing the soul. Baptism had been practiced for centuries.
Then John continued the messianic message. Someone is coming. And when he comes, the wicked are gonna get it! And the good will be rewarded. So you better watch out; you better not cry; the Messiah is coming to town. That’s what the prophets said. And the prophets also said that person was going to bring comfort to the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. And in truth, times haven’t much changed. The world is full of churchy people from all religions who feel that because they follow all the rules of their faiths, they are in good with God. But they treat everybody they meet like shit. How can you claim to be in harmony with God and not see God in each person you meet? The message of John is just as valid today as it was two thousand years ago.
I may sit here and write this stuff about the importance of a spiritual life and it doesn’t mean shit if I’m a son of a bitch to everybody around me. And I try not to be, but I know that I must be sometimes. That’s just the way life is. I don’t mean to be, but it happens. The important thing is that acknowledge it, and try to do better. And that is part of the hope of Advent, that we can all be a little better. Jesus came and proved we could all be a little better by living the life he did.
Jesus was a man. Even those among us who believe he was God, believe he was a man. And as a man, he lived the life he called us to live. And after being tortured and abused and killed, from the cross he called upon God to forgive those who did that to him. And in his final moments he also felt abandoned by God, and yet triumphed over despair and handed his spirit over into the hands of his Father. If Jesus could do it, so can I. I can also triumph out of despair. I can hand my own spirit over into the hands of my Father. I can make myself a part of all humanity, all creation, and be a part of everything. I am a part of everything. This is the hope that Jesus brought. This is the meaning of Advent.