Sunday, November 29, 2020

Finding our Footing in the Familiar

This year, nothing is familiar. Phrases like “the new normal” have been thrown around since March. It’s probable that things will never go back to the same normal we had before. And I don’t think we want them to, not really. We need to grow, to learn, to redeem, to heal.

But still the familiar draws us in. I’ve been re-watching favorite TV shows, re-reading favorite books, returning to recipes I love. There is comfort in the familiar.

Maybe that’s why the holiday season holds so much nostalgia. But there is another sameness that can have a true impact on us this Advent season.

The themes of Advent and the narrative of the Christmas story are like a comfortable, well-worn sweater. They hold cherished memories, make us feel secure, they feel like an old friend. At the same time, they carry pain and longing, fear and confusion. But Advent is a place where my weary heart can rest without anxiety or doubt. My waitings journey along with Israel’s waiting thousands of years ago. My fears echo Mary’s, and Joseph’s, and Zechariah’s, and the shepherds’. I can reflect and worship the God-who-became-man in a composition where I already know the tune. There are no surprises. And this familiarity is an excuse to step outside my self-sufficiency and self-absorption. It is a call to rest. The work has already been done.

I read a book this past Fall in which the protagonist had such a deep relationship with God—He knew her, and she knew Him so well—that she was totally in tune with His method of speaking to her. The simplest of sights or sounds would be to her a burst of inspiration and grace.

I am nowhere near that. So many things distract and discourage. But during the season of Advent, I can feel pretty close. I have friends who call this a “thin place.” A place where the barriers are less. Where glimpses of eternity weave their way through the chaos. May we settle into this narrative, the story we know so well, and allow the Spirit’s revelations to hit less like a catapult breaking through an iron-clad wall and more like a gentle wave washing over this familiar shore.

In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

When the New Testament opens, the people of Israel are groaning under the power of a foreign king. God’s people are a waiting people, but having returned from Exile in Babylonian and then waited 400 years in silence (with no prophets to point the way), things seem even more dire.

Rome had no love for God’s people. It was a miserable time to live in Israel. But through it all, God was sovereign. Indeed, it was some of Rome’s very triumphs—universal language, widespread travel—that paved the way for Jesus’ arrival. The known world was finally ready to spread the Good News of God’s son. The fullness of time had come.

It is not hard to see that these are miserable times as well. Daily, we encounter the effects of a global pandemic, political egotism, widespread systemic racism, individual battles with mental illness, poverty, and illiteracy. And though it doesn’t always help to compare these times with other eras of global panic, disease, and fear, it should help to acknowledge that we carry a very limited understanding of God’s sovereign time.

Two thousand plus years later, we are no longer surprised by the Christmas story. But as the story unfolded in real time, no one could have believed this was the setting for the promised Messiah. Though the prophets hinted at a lack of splendor, those in Israel still sought a conquering king. What they forgot, was the planting of seeds, as far back as Eden. It should have been familiar, this motif, this long-woven plan for a Servant King.

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