Advent Church: God with Us in Jesus
Every church creates its own culture—a blend of leaders, congregations, neighborhood, city, state and nation, along with language(s) spoken and theological orientation … and we can add music sung and translations sanctioned all the way down to the “right way” to end a public prayer.
Some church cultures are blazingly brilliant and so drenched with grace that people can’t wait for Sunday when the people all gather for worship and Word and sacrament. Not all church cultures are so glorious. Speaking to a group of folks not long back, I heard an all too familiar statement: I wish our church would just get this.
Advent is the beginning of the church year, and it is also the beginning of creating a church culture. What does a church culture look like that genuinely begins its story at Advent? An Advent church, one where Advent shapes the culture, is one where we indwell the story that in Jesus God is with us.
An Advent Church knows who Jesus is.
The English teacher would tell the budding writer, “Get your book going with something that grabs the reader in the first sentence.” Unless you’re Matthew. He began with a sentence that grabs only the serious Bible student: “A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1, CEB). And the next set of lines is nothing but a list of names in Israel’s history, with the oddest choice of women to enliven the story, and this goes on for a whole page!
But for the serious Bible student, another message came through loud and clear: God’s way with Israel has been a story that has awaited some kind of chapter that would bring it all together.
And that story yearning for completion finds it in the birth of a little boy in the backwater of Israel, in Galilee, to two backwater people—Joseph and Mary—who are unknown to all but God and their families. God had decided that they are the way to bring this story to completion.
What is this completion? That the God who has been “with” Israel in many ways—in a smoking pot, in a cloud and a fire, in a tabernacle, and in a temple—has finally chosen to be with Israel in a single human being. Jesus is called “Immanuel,” God with us (Matt. 1:23).
Say it slowly now: God. With. Us.
Not quite, so say it like this: Jesus. Is. God. With. Us.
Advent is the day God pitched his tent to be with Israel. It is the day God became one of us. An Advent church knows Jesus is God with us.
An Advent Church strives for a Jesus-shaped mission.
An Advent church seeks to make Jesus, God-with-us, known to all. It makes God-with-us known to the children of the families in that church; it makes God-with-us known to the teens in that church; it makes God’s presence in Jesus central to the adults and to the seniors and to the widows and to widowers.
An Advent church makes this God-with-us Jesus known to the neighborhood through acts of goodness and benevolence; it makes this Jesus known in acts of service; it makes God’s presence known through witness and words. It summons those we meet in every aspect of life to celebrate that God is with us in Jesus.
An Advent church shares the God-with-us Jesus to the whole world—through sending missionaries, through acts of charity where the world’s needs and that church’s gifts and resources meet, and it makes Jesus known by supporting churches who are also making God’s presence in Jesus known in those places.
An Advent Church practices Jesus-shaped spiritual disciplines.
If Advent is about God-with-us in Jesus, that means we need to develop spiritual disciplines that cultivate this presence of God-with-us in our lives.
What might those spiritual disciplines be? I suggest these three:
- Practice the church calendar enough to let Advent be Advent. Sadly, some churches barely take a moment to celebrate Advent because the “sermon series” has taken the church elsewhere. An Advent church gives the weeks leading up to Christmas over to reading the Gospel stories that anticipate and tell the story of God’s act of being God-with-us in Jesus.
- Practice a prayer life shaped by the canticles of Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and Anna as well as the Lord’s Prayer. Take this Advent season to begin a practice each morning of reading the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and each evening reading Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79). This is especially of value during Advent for it leads us more and more to anticipate the coming Day; we will celebrate God-with-us when Jesus returns.
- Practice a sacred space where Jesus can be seen. Whether we want to admit it or not, church aesthetics matter and shape our view of God and worship. Churches communicate, by their architecture, what we really think is important—is it the preacher? Is it the worship team? I wonder if we might reconsider our sacred spaces and ask what they say: Do they speak the message that in Jesus, God is with us?
An Advent Church tells the Jesus story all year long.
An Advent culture is created even more when this Jesus who is God-with-us becomes the story we tell, the one we worship, and the one we follow the entire year long. Year after year. Decade after decade.
An Advent church doesn’t tell a story about its pastor or its worship teams or its numbers or its political preferences or its affluent lifestyles. An Advent church tells and embodies the story that Jesus. Is. God. With. Us.
It’s not a secret: sometimes it’s hard to find Jesus in church. Some of us have gotten used to the routine and the way things unfold in our weekly church services, and we just can’t seem to move beyond going through the motions. Others of us have been disappointed or we’ve become disenchanted, and we’ve decided to look for Jesus outside the church building. Others have gotten bored with the whole thing, and no longer expect to find Jesus in either the church or the Church. And then, there are those of us who find great comfort and deep meaning in both the church building and the Church of God.
Jesus built the church on Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of Living God. Jesus pronounced that not even the gates of hell would prevail against it. Christ’s grace is at work in the church. And in the Church. In Advent Church, let’s celebrate the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and let the Church say, “Amen.”