The only constant in 2020 has been disruption. Unless you are an essential worker, most of us now work from home, wear masks, order groceries online, and attend church on our couches. Tensions are high. Fissures between minorities and those in power are expanding. Political parties have created barricades between family, friends, and neighbors. What does this mean for Advent and Christmas? All of this turmoil could just add to an already stressful holiday season and push us to the brink. There is another possibility too. What if God wants to enrich his Church during Advent and beyond as never before? What if he wants to nourish our faith in a way that can only happen amidst turmoil? I suspect this may come through the Church’s habit of breaking open the Old Testament during Advent Season and propelling us to enrich our faith in 2021.
An Uneasy Relationship with the Old Testament
I know what you’re thinking: “You’re an Old Testament professor. Of course you think the Old Testament is key to revitalizing the church.” True. I take your point, but I’m not naïve. At the start of every semester, my college students voice their impressions about the Old Testament: “It’s hard to understand.” “The violence is disturbing.” “The Old Testament God seems like a God of wrath.” “Women are treated like property.” And so forth and so on. I also know that if you have just a few moments for spiritual nourishment you’ll turn to Luke or Ephesians and not Leviticus or Ezekiel. So, is the solution to continue our path of disconnecting from the Old Testament? Or, might it be time to lean into what God has for us in the first three-quarters of the Bible?
Trees with Roots
Advent 2020 is a time when tree roots can grow into anchors amidst the high winds. This will not happen without the Old Testament. The traditional Advent Readings, the Jesse Tree, and Lessons and Carols remind us that we are part of a long, rich story. This is a story that stretches from failure in the garden, to promises to Abraham and Sarah, to deliverance from Egypt, to David’s throne, to Isaiah’s hope of God with us, to faith amidst exile, to God gracing a manger in Bethlehem in infant flesh, to a cross and empty tomb, and to a time when one called Faithful and True comes again.
Oh, how we need this long, long story of God’s faithfulness. Recently, I asked my students how reading through the Old Testament during 2020 has impacted them. One spoke of the comfort of realizing our moment in time is just a “speck” in light of the bigger picture of God’s story of redemption. The New Testament spans 100 years (maximum) of important history, but the Old Testament spans thousands of years of God’s story. The story includes times of famine, displacement, sickness, slavery, war, colonization, prosperity, and exile.
Seeing God’s faithfulness over long swaths of time—even during eras when He seemed absent—is so, so vital to our faith. I suspect that in 2020 we are poised to appreciate how this longer story from the Old Testament can give us roots to remain faithful amidst a relentless storm. Perhaps it was for this reason why Matthew begins his Gospel to a persecuted church with a genealogy from Abraham to David, David to exile in Babylon, and the exile to Christ. This may even turn out to be appealing in evangelism, as weathered pilgrims with deep confidence in God’s faithfulness hold forth the gospel.
Rain for our Roots
Advent 2020 offers us the opportunity to water our roots with tear drenched encounters with God through the Old Testament. My first real experience of Advent came when I was a senior in college. I had stumbled upon a reformed church that followed Advent. The weathered pastor, who had lost his wife, drew our souls into the anguish of the Old Testament prophets who yearned for a time when a shoot would grow from a stump, when swords would become plowshares, when lion would lay down with lamb, and when all oppression would cease. For the first time, it clicked with me that Israel’s story of longing is also my story of longing. Advent is not just about “God with us” in Bethlehem but about how what happened at Bethlehem gives us hope that all of the unfulfilled hopes of a new, tearless era will come true when “God with us” returns.
In 2020, honest, raw transparency about ourselves and our world is much needed. COVID-19 is truly devastating. Wildfires, derechos, and other natural disasters seem to be breaking already bruised reeds. George Floyd’s murder, and what minorities in the U.S. face on a daily basis, is heart breaking. Seeing my college students struggling with all their might during a time when they should be enjoying college is just plain sad. The Old Testament speaks directly to where we are. The prophets won’t let us settle for injustice; they confront us and direct gazes towards the Just One. God has given us the Psalms to let the tears flow in lament to the God who will one day wipe away our tears. Lamentations is a gift as we struggle with the unimaginable, yet still hang on to our faith by a thread. Books like Job and Ecclesiastes remind us that suffering is not always a punishment for our sin. We need this rain for our roots!
For those in a liturgical tradition, your churches should be inviting you into the grand story of longing and waiting in the Old Testament in their services. Others will have to be more intentional. You might try reading through Isaiah, as Tony Reinke did. You might meditate through key texts from across the Old Testament, such as Genesis 3, Genesis 22, 2 Samuel 7:1–17, Isaiah 9:1–7, Isaiah 11:1–10, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Here are texts commonly read at Lessons and Carols services. Or, you might just want to pray through a psalm a day to direct your tears and hopes towards God. As you find your roots strengthened and fed during Advent, this might propel you to read through the entire Old Testament in 2021 while praying through 1 psalm per day.
During Advent 2020, God wants to meet with you and me amidst this turmoil. He wants you to sink your roots deep in the story of his faithfulness. He wants you to direct your hopes for a better world toward him (prophets), to pour out your heart before him in lament (Psalms), and to persevere amidst unexplainable suffering (wisdom). I need the Old Testament for Christmas 2020, and I suspect you do too. O Come, O Come Immanuel.