Not being a liturgical denomination (or a denomination for that matter), it would be easy for us to miss that today is the first Sunday of Advent. Although I was baptized into the Methodist church at the age of two (a compromise between my Lutheran mother and Catholic father), I stopped attending when given the choice as a six year-old–and do not ever recall celebrating Advent in any respect until attending the Presbyterian church just down the street. As such, I have to defer to a couple of reference books to understand the history behind the Advent celebration and the meaning within it.
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature starts it’s entry for Advent with this:
Advent (Lat. adventus, "coming") denotes the ecclesiastical season immediately preceding Christmas, which starts in the Western church on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30). A period of anticipation of the birth of Christ, since the 9th cent. it has also been the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. In the ancient Church the words adventus, epiphania, and natale were used interchangeably to name the feast of the nativity; an early introit for Epiphany begins, "Ecce Advenit Dominator Dominus." Observance of Advent has been part of the liturgy of the church since at least the 6th cent., when the church in Gaul, where Epiphany was a baptismal feast, created an ascetical (not a liturgical) season of preparation parallel to the season of Lent and called it "St. Martin’s Lent" because it began on that saint’s feast day, November 11. Several sermons by St. Caesarius of Arles intended for delivery in the Advent season speak of the necessity of preparation for the Incarnation. From France the observance of Advent spread to England in the 7th and 8th cents., but only in the 9th cent. was a similar season introduced into the Roman rite. St. Gregory the Great is largely responsible for the structure of the Advent liturgy, but it was greatly enriched by existing collects, epistles, and gospels in the Gallican rite when the Roman rite was introduced in Gaul.1
Short version, Advent has not been all around since the church was founded, but is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year for denominations that keep the liturgical calendar. A bit more about it’s meaning can be extracted from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:
Advent was formerly kept as Lent, but with less strictness. In the W. fasting is no longer formally ordered, though festivites are discouraged and the solemn character of the season is marked by the liturgical use of purple (except on the Third Sunday, ‘Gaudete’, q.v., when rose-coloured vestments may be used) and, in the Roman Missal, by the omission of Gloria in Excelsis at the Sunday Masses. The season is observed as a time of preparation not only for Christmas but also for the Second Coming of Christ as Judge at the Last Day.2
So Advent isn’t just about preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth, it is also looking forward to the Second coming.
Now…I’m not recommending that I start showing up in purple vestments (rose in two weeks) or that we follow other mainline church Advent traditions…but from a sermon subject standpoint a pseudo-Advent theme seemed very appropriate. Which leads me to symphonies…
Mikey and I share quite a bit in musical tastes, although he can listen to euphonium music in much greater quantities than I can. 🙂
Long before he became such an avid brass player (and listener) he latched onto one of my two favorite groups as a teenager–Kansas. One of the reasons I enjoyed Kansas so much, and perhaps part of the reason my musical son keyed into them, was that many of their songs didn’t fit the standard rock paradigm. You know, sing, chorus, sing, chorus, guitar solo, sing, chorus, fade out…
Instead Kansas, similar to other groups like Jethro Tull, performed what I refer to as "orchestral rock"–not because of the instruments they used (although Kansas was famous for their violin and Jethro Tull for its flute)–but because their pieces often had "movements." Many of their songs flowed from one part to another with entirely different tones and melodies to produce an effect that emphasized the overall atmosphere or message they were trying to communicate.
Now, that doesn’t mean they are somehow equivalent to a work like Mozart’s "Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550: I. Allegro molto" (which randomly came on iTunes while I was developing this talk)…and I suspect that whether we individually are fans of classical music or not, we can all appreciate the skill that men like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and other "decomposing composers" (to quote Monty Python) had. Sure, "Stairway to Heaven" may always be my favorite song, but I’m not going to pretend that Led Zeppelin somehow produced a work greater than Beethoven’s Symphony #5 or Gustav’s Planet Suite (chosen by Mikey when I asked him what his favorite classical piece was).
Symphony of Christ
In the spirit of the intersection of Advent and symphonies, the next four weeks I would like to offer up a "Symphony of Christ" in four movements:
- 1 Movement: The Promise
- 2 Movement: The Anticipation
- 3 Movement: The Incarnation
- 4 Movement: The Culmination
And if it weren’t for the "translator"…me…I could promise you that the "music" you will hear in this symphony is far more magnificent than any earthly tune, no matter how large the orchestra or screaming the guitar…and will take you from the very beginning of time to the very end…for it is also the Concerto of the Alpha and Omega…
1st Movement: The Promise
And the first movement starts off spectacularly–with the creation of all things…space…time…matter…you can just imagine how someone like Beethoven would convert the first words of the Bible to an classical piece: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
But this is the Symphony of Christ…why then does it start of with Genesis 1:1, which speaks of God creating? Because the Apostle John makes it clear which person of the Godhead brought our universe out of nothing:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:1-3).
And if that isn’t clear enough, Paul elaborates a bit more:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).
Not only did Jesus create all things…"in him all things hold together"…and we can imagine the angels had a grand celebration because "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31a).
Nehemiah gives us a slight glimpse of those festivities in these words:
You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you (Nehemiah 9:6).
But there is an ominous cacophony that can be heard in part of the heavenly orchestra…one third of the angels are not celebrating with the rest of the universe (see Revelation 12:4), and their "conductor" is on the earth in the form of a snake with our original parents. I don’t listen to classical music enough to entirely picture how someone like Mozart would provide the proper mix of instruments, melody, and tempo…but I imagine the first garden scenes would be a mixture of innocence and foreboding doom.
We all know the story…how in that first "evil day" Eve, apparently separated from her husband Adam, made the mistake of listening to the beguiling words of Satan, and her sinless state changed…not really because she ate the forbidden fruit…but because she stopped trusting her creator:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).
Eve…and then Adam…put more faith in themselves (and implicitly the Devil) than the very being who fabricated the Garden that provided all their needs. Instead of getting the wisdom she expected, Eve (and Adam) felt an emotion they had likely never experienced before:
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 And he said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself" (Genesis 3:8-10).
How many times have we rationalized our way into not trusting God and sinning…only to find the promises of the act to be hollow, and all we get is pain in return? Isn’t any promise in a misdeed really the monkey’s claw, whether the malevolent outcome is immediate or takes time to come to fruition?
Stand aside Moses!
At this point in humankind’s short history God had to make a decision. It’s not like it’s been thousands of years since earthlings first walked the earth and then someone blew it…instead the very first examples of our species almost immediately turned their backs on their maker…our maker. Why not do what He suggested to Moses after the golden calf (Exodus 32) or when the Israelites trusted the spies with the bad report instead of the Lord (Numbers 14)…destroy Adam and Eve…and start over. It sure looked like the mold was defective, didn’t it?
Aren’t the words of David that much more incredible considering this milestone in our planet’s young life?:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
When I look at how we rejected Him right from the start, "what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?"
However, instead of "let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them" (Exodus 32:10)…God did not give up on the rebellious pair in the Garden. Yes, He did discipline them, for we know that "the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12:6)…but within His harsh, but well-deserved words was a promise in his judgement of the snake:
The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:14-15)
Verse 15 is known as the "protoevangelium"…the "first gospel"…because it is the earliest time we catch a glimpse of the promise of Christ…the promise of a solution…
Yes…right from the beginning we humans blew it…but, as I mentioned last week, God was not caught unaware…He knew what was going to happen…and the Godhead chose to go forward even though their love for us would come at such great cost…and we know that He chose us before the first atom in this universe came into being:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:3-10).
Yes, even though God know we would blow it just like our original parents did, before the foundation of the world God predestined us…predestined you…for adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ as part of a plan to undo the damage…to reunite all things on heaven and earth…to the praise of his glorious grace!
And no…it wasn’t because we deserved it…
…who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel… (2 Timothy 1:9-10).
Why did God give us a promise instead of the destruction our species deserved?! In Ephesians it said it was "according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace"…and in 2 Timothy 1:9-10 it was "because of his own purpose and grace."
God presented us with the promise instead of destruction because that is what He wanted. Because he "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Show me your glory
Yes, it was because of God’s own will and purpose that he provided Adam and Eve…you and me…with a promise…and it was also to His glory…but not in a "look how great I am since I didn’t whack you!" sense. Instead, we, like Moses can ask God to show us His Glory (Exodus 33:18) and learn how this is just God’s character:
5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation." 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped (Exodus 34:5-8).
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. It is not something He forces Himself to do…it is God. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).
As we wrap up this first movement in the Symphony of Christ, yes…we are left with a promise…but in God’s words to Moses we also learn that our Lord will "by no means clear the guilty"…and we should, like Moses, quickly bow our heads and worship Him…heeding Peter’s words during Pentecost:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Repent and claim the promise, "for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’" (Romans 10:13).
1Jeffrey, D. L. (1992). A Dictionary of biblical tradition in English literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.
2Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev.) (21). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.