Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of great expectation as we journey toward Christmas. The word advent is a Latin term which means “coming,” so we use these weeks leading up to Christmas to prepare for our celebration of the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, the Light of the world.
I’m glad you’re here with us as we embark on this journey together because it’s actually an epic journey that began more than two thousand years ago. It’s a journey of the heart and soul, a journey that will help realign our expectations of the Christmas season, and it’s a journey that will explore the gifts of Christmas delivered through Christ: hope, love, joy, and peace. We all need hope in the storms of life and love that never gives up. We certainly could all use some fresh joy and peace no matter what we’re dealing with.
Our journey and this series are going to center on the star, the Star of Bethlehem. The star has taken a central place in the Christmas story, but its mention in the Bible is really very brief. The story of the wise men from the East who followed a star is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2). There’s a lot of discussion by scholars and scientists about what the star actually was, who the wise men were, and when the cosmic event of the star’s appearance took place. But apart from the debates, there remains the truth that the light of a star led people to Jesus, even if they were still on their journey the night Jesus was born. (Most scholars place the wise men showing up one to two years after Jesus’ birth.)
You see, the star then and now is a guide that ultimately leads to Jesus, the Light of the world.
As we embark on this journey, I want to encourage all of us to look for the Light. The Advent season is about the journey as much as it is the destination. As we’ll explore, it’s a time to prepare, a time to pause and to ponder, to breathe deeply, (yes, even in the hectic and stressful parts). Advent is a time to turn our eyes to the true meaning of this time of year.
Think about the people who were part of the journey toward the first Christmas—Mary, Joseph, an innkeeper, a jealous king, some wise men, common shepherds, angels, and so many more. While the pace of our lives would probably make their heads spin, each of these people were facing daily difficulties that we would want no part of.
They didn’t have all the answers. They hadn’t spent hours or weeks getting ready and making sure they were prepared for the supernatural events awaiting them. They didn’t even completely understand what was happening—even when angels appeared or a star guided their path. But all of the Christmas story cast answered God’s invitation to come and see the arrival of His Son, the Light of the world and the Savior of all.
You too are invited to come see the Light. So will you peer through the darkness of your life, no matter what that may be, and look for the glimmer of hope? Maybe that is a difficult vision for you. Or maybe your Christmas season is already feeling overwhelming by struggles like financial stresses, relational dysfunctions, memories of loss, commercialized expectations? Please let me encourage you—that’s exactly where hope shines the brightest.
The question is, how do we reset our minds to anticipate hope? I believe we can do that by doing three things. The first one is to…
- Acknowledge the darkness around us.
Right now, this room is bright. There’s plenty of daylight, plenty of lights in this room. Yet we also know there is still plenty of darkness. Darkness in our world: sin, destruction, evil, divide. And there is plenty of darkness within us: pain, hurt, fear, guilt, sin. But there’s also plenty of hope to go around.
I have here a flashlight. Right now, it doesn’t seem too exciting. It’s actually kind of hard to even see the light it puts out since we are in a bright room. However, if we found ourselves in complete darkness, and we all had to find our way to the front or to an exit, we might feel very differently about this little gadget. It’s much like a star.
By the way, don’t you think it’s kind of amazing that God uses His own creation, a star, to reveal Himself to us. The psalmist put it beautifully in…
Psalm 19:1–4 which says,
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 8:3-4 says,
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
You see, God’s glory is seen in the stars. But the thing about stars is they can’t be seen in the light. It’s the same as that flashlight. In daylight they are there, we know they are there, but we can’t see them. In fact, they are seen best on the darkest of nights, when there is no moonlight, away from the lights of the city. The darker the setting, the brighter the starlight.
This time of year, holiday glitz can artificially light our lives. Or we may seek out our own flashing distractions to try to distract us from the gnawing darkness within. But facing the darkness and calling it what it is allows us to see the true light. It’s really only when we acknowledge the darkness that we can see the star that leads us on the journey.
As we journey together toward Christmas this Advent season, let’s be honest about the darkness we find ourselves in—both in the world and within our own hearts.
The Bible tells us that it was also a pretty dark time for the people of Israel when Jesus showed up. The Old Testament prophets had been prophesizing of a Messiah – Isaiah being one of them talked about their present darkness and the coming light. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2).
He also said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (which means God with us) (Isaiah 7:14) – like He’s finally going to be with us, but it was a long wait.
Both of these verses were spoken long before Jesus’ birth. So the people of Israel lived in that space between promise and fulfillment for hundreds of years. Looking back at their story today isn’t nearly the same as it was for them then. We know the end of the story, but the people of Israel didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. They were desperate for a deliverer. Honestly, many of them thought God had forgotten them, especially as they lived under Roman oppression in the time of Herod.
But the beauty of the journey of hope is that, in what seems to be the darkest hour, God shows up. Today, we share a very similar experience of darkness and desperation, and nothing can rescue us except God. Yet we can find and continue to draw hope, knowing that Jesus entered the darkness of our world that first Christmas, and He’s going to do it again. His Spirit will fan even the smallest spark of hope within us and draw us toward a hope that will overwhelm the darkness of this world.
It’s not an instant process, but it’s a real process that gives us what we need through the journey. The second thing we can do to reset our minds to hope is to….
- Embrace the Wait
I know, no one likes waiting. Does anyone like waiting? We live in a culture that does everything possible to reduce the amount of time we spend waiting! I don’t think most of us would do very well living in the days of the Israelites. The people of Israel in the Bible knew all about the long wait. Since Genesis, in the very first book of the Bible, when sin entered the world, we see that God offered the promise of hope. In Genesis 3:14–15, God cursed the serpent that tempted Eve and said that through her offspring will come one who will crush the serpent. This was Jesus, the source of hope from the very beginning. God had a plan of hope from the very start. But constrained by the time of our world, the waiting seemed like forever.
Imagine a farmer standing on the dry dust of a parched field and looking up to the sky. Years of drought have taken everything from him, and he has lost hope. But then, in the distance, he hears the rumble of thunder—the promise of rain. That’s the image John the Baptist gave of himself when people asked if he was the Messiah. He said, “No, I’m not the one, but I am announcing that the long-awaited One is about to arrive.” John was the messenger of hope. He said, “I’m thunder in the desert: ‘Make the road straight for God!’” (John 1:23).
Advent is a time of waiting. While it feels unnatural, there is great benefit in embracing this season as we anticipate the coming of Jesus. The waiting reminds us of where our hope is set. It allows us the time and focus to hear the distant rumble of thunder, the promise that our hope will be fulfilled.
And while we wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we also wait for our true hope to be fulfilled when Jesus comes back again. This will be the ultimate fulfillment of our deepest hopes. The apostle John described it this way:
Revelation 7:9, 16–17
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
We still live in the space between the already and the not yet. And so our challenge is to embrace the waiting with hope—and to allow that hope to carry us through the wait. You could say that hope fuels our very faith. It draws us onward, giving us expectation that our belief and longing will be fulfilled as God has promised. He’s fulfilled every promise so far!
Remember what Hebrews 11:1 says…
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
So let’s use this Advent season to serve as a reminder of the confidence we have as we wait in hope for what we do not yet see. Let’s seek the light of the star, no matter how faintly it might first appear, and draw hope from its growing light. Then, we need to…
- Commit to the Journey
I don’t know about you, but my natural images of waiting and journeying are very different. One involves sitting around; the other involves moving. But the concept of waiting throughout the Bible is one of active waiting. We wait with expectant hearts, but we are constantly moving forward on the journey.
Priest, professor, writer, and theologian, Henri J. M. Nouwen described the waiting we see in Scripture as very active. In his book Waiting for God, he wrote, “Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.”
What an excellent description of Advent! Waiting means being present in the moment, while still being active, and looking forward to where we are going. And I know that’s not always easy! And that’s why the psalmist wrote: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” (Psalm 31:24). Be strong and courageous while you wait, while you take this journey.
I also know it’s hard to keep our focus, to keep a mindset of hope especially during this busy, distracting time of year. Peter gives us an idea of how to do that.
1 Peter 1:13
“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”
Alert and fully sober mean to have a clear mind and self-control. So focus and look forward to the goal. Jesus is coming back. His return should motivate us to live for Him. Hope is about waiting, but that waiting involves a commitment to being obedient.
The good news in all of this, is that wherever you are on your journey, it’s okay—just keep following God’s light, even if it’s dim for the moment. And some may think, well I’ll start seeking hope next week, too busy this week. Yes, we have four weeks of Advent to get our heads on straight for Christmas, but remember that Advent is a human-created calendar, not God’s timing. God wants us to be really now and all the time, not just at Christmas.
Isn’t it odd how celebrating Jesus’ birth is supposed to prepare us for Jesus’ second coming, get our hearts set right, slow us down to focus on Him, yet it’s also the time busiest, craziest time of the year! Someone’s been busy trying to distract us.
Advent is about preparing. It’s not about finding all the answers or checking all the boxes. You just have to show up and be willing to follow God’s lead. Wherever you are, you are not too late. God wants to fill your heart with hope for the ultimate healing and life in His Son.
That’s a reason for hope! Hope that can fuel your journey through Advent and well beyond.
God, thank You that You enter into the darkness of our world and of our hearts with light. Help us during this Advent season to live with expectant hope as we wait for the birth of Christ at Christmas and for the complete fulfillment of hope when Christ comes again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit!” (Romans 15:13)