Many Protestants are proud of not having a liturgy, which smacks of tradition, the papacy, and salvation by works. But when it comes to Christmas, we all have traditions. My mother makes the same variety of cookies every year. My father always needs coffee (and us kids made orange juice), read the Christmas story in Luke, and forced us to take turns opening presents on Christmas morning1. We have Advent calendars, tree lightings, gift shopping trips, special meals, and so on that we feel compelled to attend to. For many Christians, Evangelical or not, the December holiday revolves around dozens of revered family, church, and cultural traditions. Most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nearly every church I’ve been to in December celebrates the four weeks of Advent. I bet your church does too. But I wonder how many people know that the Advent tradition is observed by nearly all Christians? Even the Scripture readings are common between Catholics and most Protestants2. There’s something wonderful about the worldwide Church agreeing on something (anything) and our local church, at least, is trying to get on board with that.
If you went to church this week, there’s a really good chance the Old Testament reading was:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’—Jeremiah 33:14-16 (ESV)
As Christians, we believe that this promise was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus, a descendant of David. But when Jeremiah heard this word and spoke it, he was in Jerusalem as it was under siege by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, for the second time. Since after the time of Solomon, David’s son, the Kingdom of Israel had been split into two kingdoms. Then the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom was defeated by Babylon and a puppet government was established in Judah. God’s promise that a descendant of David would rule a united kingdom forever seemed, at that moment, as far away as could be possible.
In some ways prophets, such as Jeremiah, were ancient editorialists. They commented on the direction of the nation, influenced public opinion, and often disagreed with each other on partisan lines. Near the end of the Kingdom of Judah, there were two camps: those that predicted Babylon would be repulsed and the other that warned that God would allow them to purge the land of idolatry. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were the primary proponents of the later view.
We read Jeremiah’s despair over the destruction of Jerusalem in the book of Lamentations. Nearly his entire career was marked by pessimism over the future of his nation; the Lord required him to prophesy the inevitability of Babylon’s victory. When their armies surrounded the city of David, Jeremiah was imprisoned in palace of Judah on charges of defeatism. God had decided that Israel would be carried into a foreign city because the people would not turn from worshiping other gods. It must have been hard to have hope for the promised peaceful Davidic kingdom.
And yet, he did preach hope. For the next 600 years, Judah waited for the promised messiah. And even now, we wait for His return and the culmination of the promise with expectation and hope. This week of Advent is all about those layers of hope.
How far do you hope? We read in Revelation that God will bring together His Church from every ethnic group who will worship Him forever. As we look around at the brokenness of our culture and the division in our religion, it’s easy to assume that God will need to start over. In a lot of ways, the Protestant Reformation was founded on that assumption. It’s been 2,000 years since Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again. Is it time to give up on His return?
Who do you put your hope in? Do you expect politics to solve the problems in society? Jeremiah opposed his government, but at the same time affirmed God’s promises that the line of David would one day establish peace. He was impatient with sin, but patient with God to deal with it3. God, unlike anyone else is always good. He always comes through, though not always at the time we expect.
In the coming weeks, we will see how God fulfilled His promise in His Son, Jesus. But we must recall that we are still, in some ways, like the Old Testament prophets: we are waiting with expectation for God’s next move.
- His father did the same thing, but on Christmas Eve. That part of the tradition got lost as we attended churches with candlelight services on Christmas Eve and doing everything that needed to get done got complicated. My dad now has a tradition of watching the Pope’s midnight mass on TV while he wraps presents. I guess the papacy isn’t all bad.
- The Orthodox church does things a little differently, largely because they have retained the Julian calendar.
- Jeremiah acknowledged God’s justice to punish Jerusalem for her idolatry, but also pleaded that she would be restored. God is big enough to take our frustrations with Him, but we cannot allow ourselves to completely lose hope.