One of the finest things about Christmas is packed into one word: anticipation. If I were a theologian I bet I could write a whole mess of pages about anticipation in Scripture, from abstinence before marriage to the Second Coming. Also, if I were a theologian I probably wouldn’t call it a “mess of pages”, but a thesis, or an essay, or an article.
For children, of course, anticipation–maddening though it is–fills the days leading up to Christmas morning like no other time of the year. They want their presents. We wrap them up and lay them under the tree to sparkle and deepen their anticipation. The same could be said for the prophets and the astute Jews who knew a Messiah would come to the rescue of Israel. There in the Scripture those promises of a coming King lay wrapped in mystery–mysterious prophecies that the scribes and priests and teachers of the law inspected, turned over, and shook. The Old Testament anticipates the New.
“Advent” wasn’t a part of my family’s vocabulary when I was a boy. My dad had an old menorah–a candelabrum with seven candles–and lit each one along with a family devotional on the seven days leading up to Christmas. That was as close as we came, and it was beautiful. It’s good to have something intentional to mark the days, to make them different from the rest of the year, something tangible to illumine our faces and draw all eyes in the room to one point of light as we think on things wonderful and true; as we think on the story on which our best hopes rest.
Early in the Old Testament, God told His people to tell and retell to their children the story of how He saved them from slavery in Egypt. (Deut 6:20-25) With this command to be life-long story-tellers, we are reminded that while our redemption in Christ is very much set in doctrinal truths, these truths are anchored in an amazing and true tall tale. The aim of Russ’s series of Advent Meditations this year will be to tell some of those stories from the Old Testament which point to the need for and promised coming of Christ.
If you’re unfamiliar with the season of Advent, here’s some more information about the season and the Advent Wreath. We’ll be posting Rabbit Room Podcasts leading up to Christmas, so you can listen either by clicking the player below, or subscribing to the podcast at iTunes or by clicking here. –AP
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is one. Love Him. Love Him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)
Since just after their exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel began their worship with these words known as the S’hema (the Hebrew word for “Hear!”).
But this wasn’t some detached decree to render affection to an unknown deity. This was a command to remember. They were to rehearse in their minds and hearts and homes a story—their story.
It was a story still unfolding, but underway enough to know that the Lord their God was one in number and in nature, and that the only proper way to respond to His dealings with them was to love Him with everything that they had and everything that they were.
This was different.
At that time, most of the world bowed in worship to a host of idols and spirits, each with the power to bless or to curse.
Under the plan of appeasing these gods in order to coax from them their favor while keeping their fury at bay, the entire pagan world had fashioned a tapestry of religious observance, interweaving the warp of the moods and demands of the gods with the woof of the tributes and rituals of man.
These gods were not to be known; they were to be feared. They were not to be loved; they were to be placated. They were many and they were moody. The people lived in fear of these gods who could lavish great prosperity upon their households, but could also scorch the earth beneath their feet.
But these were not Israel’s God. The nature of Israel’s God was definite and His character was immutably fixed. The only reasonable response was to love Him for it. This was the core of Israel’s religion.
But this wasn’t just lore. This was history—an unbroken chain of actions and their consequences, one following the other like chapters in a book, weaving together a binding blend of narrative and Law that said, If this is the nature of your God, “love Him with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.” (Lk 10:27)
The people of Israel were to be a people of this Law. And they were to post that Law everywhere.
They were to nail it to the doorposts of their homes and their gates, that they might remember it in their comings and goings. (Deut 6:9)
They were to bind it to their arms, that it might guide whatever work they set their hands to.
They were to lash it to their foreheads, right between their eyes, that it might be the focus of every conversation and every face to face relationship they knew. (Deut 6:8)
They were never to depart from this harmony of story and statute. They were to take it and teach it to their families. They were to recount the mighty deeds of their almighty God, never stopping until the story was so ingrained in their children that those little ones not only understood that this story was, in fact, their story, but also so that they would be able to tell it well when they had children of their own.
They were to tell their children, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is one. Love Him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
This relational response of love to a singular, omnipotent God was so gloriously uncommon in those days that it must have sounded to many like a tall tale.
And it was.
Only it is a true tall tale.
Woven throughout the story are wrath, greed, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy and pride—together in force with all their consequences. But shooting through that darkness shines the bright rays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. (Gal 5:22)
Will darkness prevail in the end, or will light overcome the darkness? (Jn 1:5)
This, ultimately, is what the story is about.
It is a tale filled with people in trouble, all living somewhere in the in-between positions of wandering and homecoming, of devastation and restoration, of transgression and grace. Every mortal character in the story needs rescue, but “they have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:3)
The story is rich in layer and texture. But after clearing away all the levels of all the intrigue, conflict and suspense facing mankind, this tale is not ultimately a story about mere mortals. It is a story of divine love.
The Law of the Lord is a love story.
It is the story of the one true God calling a people His beloved, though for their part they have only lived in perpetual rebellion against Him. They are not meant to live this way. Still, they do.
Though their lives are a ruin of their own making, God had sworn a covenant oath to redeem them. Everything wrong with the world He would put right. He would remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh, putting a new spirit within them. (Ezk 11:19)
He would never, ever stop loving them. (1 Chron. 16:34)
To understand why God would keep such a people and love them with such a perfect, patient love, ultimately redeeming them in the end, one must go all the way back to the beginning of the story.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and from the heavens He lit up the earth and set it spinning into a rhythm of illuminated days and shadowy nights.
He separated the sky from the sea and the sea from the land. And He made the earth fertile, filling it with trees bowing and vines sagging and stalks bending under the weight of their fruit and grain. Then He filled the earth, sky and sea with swarms of living creatures—beasts of a million herds roaming the land, birds of a million colors filling the sky, and creatures of a million shapes teeming in the depths of the oceans. (Gen 1:1-25)
It was all very good. (Gen 1:31)
But God wasn’t finished. He had saved the best for last. In concert with His Son, (Heb 1:2) God said, “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Gen 1:26)
So He did. God created man.
Seeing that it wasn’t good for man to be without a mate, God created woman. And together the man and the woman were different from everything else God had made. Everything else the Maker had created according to His imagination, but mankind He made according to His own image and likeness.
He gave mankind dominion over creation and charged them with the responsibility of caring for the earth. But this was not what set man apart from the rest of creation. What set humanity apart was the relationship with God the man and woman were created to know and enjoy forever.
And for a while, this is exactly what they did. In the cool of the day, the first man and first woman walked with their God in the Garden He had designed for them. They were naked and they were unashamed.
All was right with the world. Eden was theirs to enjoy—every part except one tree in the middle, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God warned them, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17)
This was before death had entered the world.
But before long, the tempter came in the form of a serpent and he questioned the woman on the matter, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1)
No, that wasn’t what God said. They could eat from any tree they wished except one, she explained. On the day they ate of that tree, God told them they would die.
Up until this moment mockery and deceit were unknown to the man and woman. Every word spoken so far had been as honest as it was earnest. But there in the garden, the serpent spoke a sentence, subtle and slow, setting up a slippery slope of uncertainty and suspicion.
“”You will not surely die. God knows when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like Him, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:4-5)
With that, he planted a question the woman had never before considered. Is God really good?
And almost as if watching herself from a distance, she stretched out her hand, took the fruit and saw that it did look good for eating. (Gen 3:6) Slowly she raised it to her lips, opened her mouth and took a bite.
Her husband who was there with her did the same.
Though they could not hear it, in that moment as they broke the surface of the fruit, all of creation groaned. Lust, shame, fear, guilt, mistrust, blame-shifting and loneliness rushed into their hearts and as if waking up from a deep sleep, they saw for the first time that they were naked.
It was humiliating.
So they made coverings for themselves out of fig leaves. For the first time they questioned whether being exposed before each other was a safe proposition. There they stood; covered, ashamed and awakened to sin.
Was hope lost forever?
The first lovers believed the first lie and awoke to the first ugly moment of shame. They were wrecked.
Was there redemption amidst the wreckage?
When the Lord God came walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, the man and the woman did something else they had never done before.
God found them hiding, afraid and clothed, crouching behind the bushes God had grown in the Garden He had designed for their enjoyment.
They told Him what they had done and how the serpent had deceived them. Still it was they who ate the fruit and broke the only Law God had ever given them.
And this broke them.
They needed saving, but they couldn’t save themselves. They couldn’t go back in time and undo what they had done. If they were to be put right with God, God Himself would have to be the One to do it.
But would He? Would He deal with the tempter? Would He take away their guilt and shame? Would He blot out their transgressions and cleanse their consciences?
God had told them that if they ate of that tree, they would surely die? Would they? If so, would death ever be defeated?
God’s response in that moment would tell the tale.
Turning to the serpent first, the Lord spoke a curse over him, rendering him the lowest of all creatures, destined to crawl on his belly eating dust all the days of his life. But this wasn’t the worst of it. God pronounced enmity between serpent and mankind. The two would contend against each other until the very end.
And this would end. The devil’s days were numbered.
God continued, saying a descendant would come from the woman and though the serpent would strike at His heel, He would crush the serpent’s head. (Gen 3:15) It was an image rich in irony—the scheme of the deceiver to destroy the offspring of the woman would end in the devil’s own defeat. The serpent would nip at this Man’s heel only to end up crushed beneath the weight of it. (Gen 3: 15)
Hear, O Israel! There in the very first moments after the fall of man, the Lord God was on the scene, acting to assure both the deceiver and the deceived that redemption would come and destroy the power of the hold of evil over the image bearers of God. (Rom 16:20)
Still, to the man and woman, God told them there was no going back. From here on life would be hard. And it was. God cast them out of the Garden of Eden and stationed an angel with a flaming sword at its entrance.
They would never return.
Created to fill the earth and subdue it, the man and woman would have do this now east of Eden someplace. (Gen 1:28) They would have to subdue the earth by the sweat of their brows, forever contenting against thorns and rocks and their own physical limits. They would live off the land, but it would be a constant struggle. (Gen 3:17-19)
As for filling the earth, God said to the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen 3:16)
Their bodies would surely die, but not right away. They would go on to have children and begin to fill the earth. Their descendants would be numbered like the stars in the sky. And every last one of them would struggle in some measure from the cradle to the grave—heirs to their first parents’ sin.
Coming into this world would be a struggle. Living in this world would be a struggle. Leaving this world would be a struggle.
Would there ever be an end?
Generations later, centuries deeper into the unfolding true tall tale, the people of God would enter into worship to the reminder spoken that the Lord is their God. Somehow, someway, the Lord God had not abandoned them to the grave. (Ps 16:10)
But this was not be due to their ability to possess God. They had no power to contain Him. He possessed them—He who is One and the same, yesterday, today and forever. (Heb 13:8)
The fact that they remained under His covenant promise as recipients of His Law told them this was not a static situation. God had not left them to perish in their sin. (Jn 8:24, 1 Pet 2:24) And if He had not, surely it was because He meant to deliver them from it.
Perhaps light would overcome the darkness when the offspring of the woman crushed evil’s head.
As parents told their sons and daughters this story of the enduring faithfulness of God, eventually the children’s questions would turn to the man and the woman standing there, awkward in their fig leaves.
What happened to them?
Well, “the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Gen 3:21)
This had never been done before either. The blood of the innocent was shed to cover the shame of the guilty. By the blood of the calf or the lamb, the man and woman would come out of hiding and stand again before their God.
Only it wasn’t the man or the woman who shed this blood to make these coverings.
This was the work of the Lord.
And it was only the beginning.