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“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
The camp was hushed in deference to their guests. Sarah waited inside her tent, ears pricked to catch any words their visitors may offer. But seated outside beneath the trees these men had so far eaten in suspended silence.
Then a foreign voice cut the quiet. “Where is your wife, Sarah?”
Sarah stumbled back. How could she be known to these men?
“There, in the tent.” Abraham answered. His words scuttled spider-like across her skin, as if she’d been unveiled. Or had the stranger’s voice irked her, his knowingness?
Again he spoke, “I will return about this time next year, and your wife will have a son.”
Oh, this again? Under her breath Sarah laughed. She laughed a laugh that was a mouthful of sharp stones. Her hands fisted around the cloth of her tunic where it fell limp across her fleshless womb. Hands dry and cracked and dusted with flour from the bread she had baked. Hands she did not want to accept as her own. Dry, cracked, dusty, and foreign, a picture of the land they had wandered since leaving Haran. A land contaminated and cursed with the worst of what the world became after Adam and Eve hid from God and Eden closed its gates.
A story was told about this time, and as they travelled throughout Canaan its words seemed to come alive before Sarah’s eyes. “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race; it broke his heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them.” Do you see? Sarah wished to shout at her husband’s invisible God while waving towards the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah down on the plains beyond their campsite. Why don’t you send another purge? Nothing but evil grows in this place.
But God had not sent another flood. God had given a promise. God had promised a kingdom and God had promised a son. A kingdom! This kingdom would be Eden reborn, a nation living with God as king in a land of blessing and abundance. And a son, her son—a son through whom this kingdom would be brought to glorious life. How her heart had blossomed at the thought of the softness of his little cheeks beneath her kiss, how her arms had ached to be filled with his wet wiggly weight, and ached and ached and ached. For the years had turned and turned and she had waited and waited, waited until she was reduced to nothing but an unused vessel, a pot dropped on the way to the well, broken, left behind, forgotten. And her womb, her womb had now become this land, land which like their unborn son was another ungiven promise—dry, cracked, cursed, and contaminated by the time her husband abandoned her to the pleasure of Egypt’s king to secure his own life.
Sarah wiped her hands on her tunic, muttering a bitter curse, that the bread she had baked would bloat in the stomach of the stranger and befoul his bowels later on the road. For this is how she had lived, promised good things but left with rags sodden with rot.
This morning when her husband had burst into her tent such light had filled his eyes that for a moment she mistook him for the young man she had married and remembered herself brimming with the delight of an expectant bride. Then dirt and dust and desert and his crumbled face and crooked body had clouded her vision.
“He is here. Bake bread. We will kill the fattened calf,” Abraham said, breathless.
“Who is here?” she had snapped at the swinging tent flap. He was already gone.
And now this stranger sat with her husband and scoffed mouthfuls of their riches, and in return fed them more lies. There would be no son. She was poisoned earth, a land of decay. Sarah coughed another laugh, the false hope this stranger offered squirmed in her mouth like meat bitten and discovered maggot filled. She laughed so she wouldn’t howl.
“Why does Sarah laugh?” the stranger asked.
Sarah clamped her hand over her mouth.
“Sarah, why did you laugh?” The stranger asked again, louder. Sarah’s heart lurched as if dragged on gravel. He was calling out to her, not passing comment.
“What is impossible with man is possible with God.” To her surprise the stranger offered his defence rather than demanding hers. “I tell you the truth, I will return this time next year, and you will have a son.” His voice was imbued with such kindness that her eyes itched with renegade tears. No—she took her hands from her mouth and pushed this escaped liquid back with the heels of her palms. He was a trickster, skilled at falsehood, sure to want a price for her disrespect. His show of gentleness was the calm before a brewing storm.
“I didn’t laugh,” she exclaimed before she could rein in her fears, then clamped her hands again over her mouth, fell to her knees, and brought the storm with her grief.
“No, you laughed,” said the stranger. Why such sadness to his words?
Later, she lay awake on her sleeping mat. The night’s wind danced around the tent; rattling the poles, it exhaled and inhaled into the skin walls, giving shape and breath to the endless black. She slipped her hands beneath her tunic and pressed her time wrinkled fingers to the desiccated hollow of her stomach.
Spent of sorrow she was numb as frostbite.
She jolted as a body lay beside her. A hand rested on her chin, thumb touched to her lips. This hand she knew as well as her own. He was cold from the night. He was hot with expectation. He waited. The wretch! She wanted to thwart his confidence she would defrost beneath the simple press of his wizened skin. She wanted—she turned to meet his kiss.
“The stranger was empty of truth,” she breathed. “You must not hope.”
He took a while to find his voice. “No stranger, Sarah, but God.”
Hushed in deference… Advent is here. A younger version of me once rejected anything church calendar related as empty tradition, relics wrongly imbued with magical meaning. I am a slow learner perhaps, only in these past few years discovering how these rhythms and rituals were fashioned in the hearts our church ancestors to illuminate truth, and teach our apathetic and rebellious souls the art of worship and ongoing resurrection amidst a loudly pagan world.
I will return… Advent means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’ and it unravels across the four Sunday’s before Christmas. It is a season of anticipation and preparation. It intersects our wait for Jesus to return with Israel in exile waiting for the Messiah.
Advent is an invitation to reflect on the joy and sorrow of our year and reembrace our place within God’s wondrous unfolding mission of salvation and resurrection.
A land contaminated… God’s mission of resurrection began the day his good world was contaminated. Exile runs deeper than Israel’s defeat by Babylon. Exile is us shut out of Eden, cut off from the tree of life, forbidden to walk the same ground as God. Exile is the curse of sin. Exile is the decay of all good, from our fragile bodies to our fragile earth. Exile is creation divorced from God, creation undoing itself.
Advent is a reminder that sin steeped we are not who we are made to be, and this world not our true home. We were made to walk with God in a garden of abundance.
Send another purge… Sin requires judgement. We know this however much it squirms against our ethical sensibilities. Without judgement there is no justice. How our hurting world cries for true justice! God purged the rot from creation once with the flood, but he will purge absolutely on the final day, the day Jesus arrives, the day creation’s rebirth is completed. But to prepare for this day we hold a gift our ancestors such as Sarah and Noah lacked within their lifetime, a gift the prophets began to speak of when Israel failed their mission to live as God people—we have a fix to our sin broken hearts, we have new hearts, we have Jesus.
Advent trembles with the painful truth that justice comes through judgement, and judgement is coming with Jesus’ second arrival. Advent is a celebration that our sin is paid for by Jesus and so we can walk with Jesus into the eternal new creation.
A promised son… Abraham and Sarah were promised Eden reborn—a new people living with God in a new land, overflow blessing into the world. All these promises hinged on a promised son, a son that didn’t come. And then he did. Isaac’s impossible birth cemented the trust of Abraham’s ancestors in God for ever after. God will because he did.
Advent is a time to ensure that the relentless trouble we live within is not eroding our faith that God is bringing justice and rebirthing the world, but to secure our faith with the knowledge that God has kept all promises past and will keep all promises future.
Eden reborn… After Isaac’s birth God kept adding to this record of promises kept. God built a great nation, God rescued them into Egypt from the famine, and rescued them from slavery into the desert, and from the desert into the Promised Land, and then from exile back to the Promised Land, and then thrust them into complete spiritual rebirth in Christ, transforming them into kingdom set to spread across the globe as a living outpost of the new creation. A kingdom commissioned to grow, and grow, and grow until its final completion when Christ returns.
Advent returns to our attention the promise that in Christ we are Eden bound, and commissioned to call everyone to come aboard the ark which Jesus offers.
And waited… Salvation, it seems, takes time. Israel once waited—fistful of God’s promises—waited in miserable exile for God to send their Messiah. Before this they waited in the desert, waited to be given the land promised to Abraham. Previous to desert life Jacob’s children waited in Egypt, waited in slavery, waited to be the great nation God had promised to build from their offspring. Earlier still, Abraham and Sarah waited for the promised son, the seed through which blessing would be poured onto the whole world. And we wait, wait within the grip of a broken world, wait for Jesus to come again and put all things right in one final act of judgement and recreation. We wait. Waiting is hard.
Sarah laughed… God’s promises seemed ridiculous. The brokenness of the world had worn her faith to threads. The son hadn’t come. She did not see God as big enough to do the impossible. All was wrong and would stay wrong. I’m sure the disciples thought the same when watching Jesus die on the cross. But God is not small. God does not take the expected road. God flips all wrong for his glory. And yes, the world is wrong. But God is at work turning death into life. Sarah called her miracle son Isaac, ‘laughter’, a joke for the God she had disbelieved and lied to, and an expression of her re-found hope and utter joy.
Sometimes all we build for good can seem like sandcastles on a tidal beach, ruined over and over, useless to begin. Like Sarah, we can fall into despair and disbelief because we cannot see God at work. But we have so much more story than Sarah had to hold onto. We can see Isaac in Sarah’s arms, we can see Jesus in the manger, and we can see Jesus on the cross.
Advent is a space to grieve all that is wrong, all that was lost in the fall, all we do not have yet, all we wait for in Jesus’ return. But we grieve cradled by the assured hope that better is coming. Advent is a time to weep, a time to accept our inadequacies, a time to look up at Christ’s sufficiency, a time to step forward inside Christ and be who we are—God’s restored image-bearers. It is a time to begin again making little choices and big choices to be God’s beauty and light and justice in every moment, to intersect God’s glory with our everyday ordinary, to be open windows which give our world a glimpse of resurrected reality.
No stranger, Sarah, but God… God arrives. God walked with Adam and Eve. God gave Noah ark instructions. God visited Abraham and Sarah. God wrested Jacob. God met with Moses. God is here. We just don’t see. The incarnation was for us to meet God, to give flesh to a God beyond what our minds could grasp. God knows us. God wants to be known and trusted. God doesn’t need us, God loves us. We have a seat at God’s banquet. We have a room in God’s house. God calls us back to Eden to walk again by his side.
So why not lean into Advent this December? The internet is rich with resources—books, study series, advent calendars—ready to help you create advent rituals for yourself and for your whole household. Or perhaps you can birth brand new creations from your own beautiful imaginations. But let’s continue to train ourselves to embrace our participation in God’s great ongoing story of salvation, and fix our eyes on Christ—the fulfilment of all promises past, the answer to all promises future, the living new creation we are a part of, and the beat of our spirit filled hearts.
Sarah and Abraham’s journey through salvation history can be found in Genesis 11-25. It is epic, go read it. The story of Abraham’s ancestors continues on in the church today as through Christ we are adopted into God’s chosen people. My quote from the Noah narrative is abbreviated from the Message written by Eugene Peterson.
Looking for resources for your journey through Advent?
I enjoyed Lara J Williams Advent study series ‘Then Came Jesus’
As a family we read Ann Voskamp’s ‘Unwrapping the Greatest Gift’
This year I’m looking forward to exploring into this gorgeous free Advent experience by Bette Lynn Dickinson—A Pregnant Pause. Her paintings are just glorious.
Also, Common Grace is offering a free Advent series that looks seriously beautiful.
I’ve heard good things about Sweet Honeycomb’s Advent calendar.
And the wonderful Sarah Bessey has a whole blog on Advent resources.
I would love to hear what you are doing to lean into Advent this year…
Wow! You read this far! Thank you, lovely friend.