Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Before feasting comes fasting and before Christmas there is Advent. There is a song written for Advent that captures the spirit of this build up to the Holy Day, a strange blend of longing and hope:

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Everything is not “o.k.” and cheerful hopes will not make it better. Tinsel on a grave is macabre, not festive. We long for home and feel almost at home here, but not quite. There is something awry, but just before Christmas we cannot help but feel hope.

We hope, but it is a fearful future we face and nobody can avoid it.

Today was a strict fast day for Christians in my community and a good chance to reflect on the message of Advent: the “last things.”

Death, judgment, heaven, and hell are the four last things. They are certain and cannot be escaped. They are in my future and in your future. First comes death and then judgment. God cannot be bought and He does follow opinion polls.

Our problem is not just what we do, but who we are. We are broken and unfit for heaven and so doomed to hell. There is a way out, but the time to take advantage of that way is limited. If we are not changed before death, then we are damned.

How could it be otherwise? We are broken and there is no place for the broken in Heaven if they refuse to be healed.

Sometimes I meet college students who think science will solve the “problem” of death. One professor I met felt that his children might be the last generation to die. Suppose (as is unlikely) that this is true. Eventually these long-livers will die, because accidents will kill them over time. This death will cut them off from centuries of potential life and will seem even more tragic than a young death appears to us today.

Even if all accidents can be avoided, there will come the end of the cosmos . . . and at that moment the agony of Hamlet will be meaningful again: To be or not to be. What is ahead in the Undiscovered Country?
Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Jesus went ahead through death and came back to report on what he found. There is a just God and He is will judge with equity and knowledge and we are so fragile. We cannot survive in the world as it is.

This is the reason that some of the church remembers the Bible story of the raising of Lazarus today. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus who died and Jesus wept before the grave of his friend.

God did not stand afar from death, but came and faced it. God, in the person of Jesus, stood at the grave of a friend, one who died too young, and cried. Jesus did not just weep, but demonstrated His ultimate power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus does not just have compassion, He has power. The baby in the manger had more potential power than Caesar Augustus in Rome. One cry from the stable of Bethlehem could fill the sky with angelic powers:
Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Death is coming and if there is nothing after it, then we could face it perhaps. But what if human beings are not just animals, but also something more. What if the eternity in our hearts is a sign that eternity is our destiny?

What if after death we are like Lazarus and the next voice we hear is that of Jesus? He will call us from the grave either to joy or to misery.

The reality is that for many of us Christmas Day perfectly reveals this truth. Advent will end, but instead of the jollification and party we hope to experience it will be disappointment. Our hopes will be dashed, because our preparations will fail us. We cannot control enough of reality to make sure of our own happiness.

God is willing and able to save us. He will deliver us from every foe, but He loves us too much to ignore our real decisions. If we reject Him, then He will act on that choice.
Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

The older I get the more my life comes down to simple choices. I can live my life in my own wisdom, but that has proven foolishness too many times for me to put much hope in that! I can live my life based on the whims of the moment, but the experts are always changing their minds. Science, religion, philosophy are all great sources of knowledge, but sadly scientists, the religious leaders, and philosophers are just men.

They cannot be trusted. We need God to become man and come to us.

That is not the worst of it. Anybody can look around and see that there are wicked forces in the world that go beyond mere human evil. The Devil does not need to make us do wicked things, but he helps us along the path to damnation. Demons delight in tempting the weak to destroy themselves.

We are like Lazarus dead in a tomb and unable to move. The door to Heaven is closed to us. No work can save a dead man or hide the stink of our moral decay.
Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

The good news of Christmas, news so good that I can hardly believe it, is that God did come. The solution is here. It is not a solution that pretends we are “o.k.” It does not tell us what we think we want to hear, but what we need to hear. It deals with our deep needs and not just our felt needs.

Jesus came to Earth to save us from ourselves and from the evil forces that torment us. Jesus came to cleanse us and make us like Himself.

Jesus did not just come, He will come! He will come not just at the moment of death or in some future apocalypse, but right now if I will ask Him to come into my heart.

I can be born again. I can be saved from myself, from sin, from devils, and from the broken world.
Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

God hates our cruel division and wars. He is angered at the destruction of the beautiful planet He made. He despises those who practice injustice and He is on the side of all those treated unjustly. There is a new world coming where all this will end and we will die and see it within one hundred years!

But before that moment that will surely come to each of us not so long from now, Christians can choose to obey Him. We can love our enemies. We can pray for those who are cruel to us. We can forgive and have mercy on those who beg for it. Christians can feed the hungry in Christ’s name and bring comfort to the sick.

We can ask every Lazarus we know to leave death and choose life. Though we cannot be the voice of Jesus, we can pray that our friends hear that voice calling them out of the tomb in which they are trapped.

If you don’t know Jesus, or have “given up” on Him, then listen carefully. Listen for His voice. Accept that we cannot fix our problems, but need Him.

Rejoice! Advent will end and Christmas is coming. It can still be merry.
Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles