Loving like Jesus begins with orienting our hearts to the right calendar. This is why Advent matters.
Growing up, my family went to a traditional, mainline denominational church. The denomination had 500 years of history behind it, but this particular church no longer offered a clear proclamation of the gospel. I know I listened to a lot of sermons growing up, but I don’t remember ever really being struck by what was shared. And not only was the content uncompelling, but so was the form through which it was presented. To me, each church service was nearly indistinguishable from the others. We would march through the same pattern of sitting, standing, and mouthing what I considered to be empty words. We sang ancient songs from musty, old hymnals. I was scared of the woman who played the organ. She kept a watchful eye on all of us delinquent youth and made sure we weren’t doing anything irreverent – like smiling. Basically, my church experience seemed antiquated and completely irrelevant, and my impression of God was much the same. God was distant and uninvolved, and he had little bearing on my actual life.
In college, I stumbled into Summitview and for the first time heard a clear explanation of the gospel. I discovered real, compelling truth and was captivated by it. But in part, it was compelling because of how it was presented. I heard it through a form that seemed very relatable. God was no longer distant and irrelevant. He was near. He was accessible. He mattered on Monday morning. In those early years of my Christian faith, I became convinced that churches must aim for an expression that’s fresh and contemporary.
Yet here I am more than 20 years later and I find myself appreciating things that are, well, old. In a rapidly changing and exhausting world, stability and constancy seem strangely refreshing. Hymnals aren’t necessarily musty and old anymore. There’s something about them that’s enduring, weighty and solid. Patterns that have been around for centuries seem to take me out of my little myopic world and connect me to something a lot bigger. I find myself living in a tension, wanting both the old and the new at the same time.
But really, this is a tension that should be expected and that we must live in because it reflects a longing for contrasting qualities that are both found in God. Specifically, it’s a longing for both God’s immanence and his transcendence. God is very near and relatable, but he’s also far above and unchanging. We start to get in trouble when we dismiss either quality.
And our understanding of these qualities will certainly affect church form. Different elements will emphasize either God’s immanence or his transcendence. When I think of our own church’s expression, I hope to provide an experience that is accessible to those 18-year-olds like me who have never known God to have any relevance to their lives. At the same time, I want to include elements that transcend culture and remind me that I’m part of a much bigger story. That’s where Advent comes in.
In recent years, I’ve grown in appreciation for traditional parts of the church calendar for several reasons. First, sometimes the historical church calendar helps to challenge the other calendars that we live by. Around Christmastime, we’re especially drawn into certain cultural “liturgies.” The shopping and entertainment calendars are pretty absorbing. Not to mention the football calendar. Advent can help provide an alternative set of patterns that reorients our priorities. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, certain traditions can help to fight against a kind of narcissism that sees my immediate circumstances as of greatest importance. Instead, I’m connected to the historical church and my own era is put in the context of a larger plan. Thirdly, traditions are always linked to ideas. If used rightly, traditional patterns can endear me to the ideas that those patterns represent. I hope to be creating regular experiences that my family and I will cherish as we look back on them.
For those reasons and more, at Summitview we are again celebrating the season of Advent. Advent has been a part of the historical church calendar since at least the sixth century. Even in past centuries, the church recognized the need to steal our hearts back from competing cultural rituals. The four weeks before Christmas have been used to reflect on the realities of the incarnation and to remember that we, too, are waiting for the coming of Christ.
Advent fixes our hope on what is truly hopeful, rather than the false hopes that we so easily wrap our hearts around this time of year. The four weeks of Advent focus on four different themes. Different denominations sometimes use different themes, but a traditional set is this: hope, peace, joy and love. These, of course, are the gifts we are given in Jesus and are everything we really long for. During the services on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we will highlight each of these four gifts.
We will also offer an Advent devotional that includes daily entries to be used to reflect on each of those four themes. In this year’s devotional, we’ll be focusing on how Jesus as king offers us everything we’ve always desired. Jesus rules on the throne of David, and his reign makes all of those gifts attainable.
This year we invite you to join with the church throughout the centuries to fix your hope on the enduring rule of Christ and everything he offers.