The book of Jonah may be one of the last books I’d turn to for an Advent reading; yet when our pastor started a new sermons series on Jonah this past Sunday, it didn’t take much digging to reach the heart of the Gospel.
Most of us know the story. God sends Jonah to the grim and warlike Assyrians with a prophetic call to repentance. Jonah resists, and aquatic hijinks ensue. Everyone knows the basics, but as is so often the case, God is in the details. The prophet Jonah, whose name means dove, hailed originally from the tiny town of Gath-Hepher, which was known primarily for its wine presses. So while it’s accurate to say that God sent Jonah from Israel to preach to the Assyrians, we could also say that God sent his dove to a place of wrath, bearing a message of redemption tinged with a whiff of festival joy.
I can’t think of more accurate symbolism for the Gospel; especially since in Christ we have a better Jonah—One who did not run from those He was sent to redeem but ran to them instead.
That’s why we gladly celebrate his Advent.
Holiday celebrations aren’t all spiritual epiphanies and warm fuzzies, however. If your family is anything like mine, then Christmas could also mean the nieces and nephews bickering; or everyone getting the stomach flu at the same time; or the Christmas tree falling over so many times it requires being wired to the wall; or your cousin knocking over the dessert table before anyone gets a bite of anything. Worse, sometimes the very idea of the holidays—with all the associated notions of peace, joy, and homecoming—merely serves to highlight a simmering undercurrent of angst.
“Instead of building the holidays up in our minds as the one time of year we can be assured of kindness, warmth, love, and cheer, we must instead recognize these expectations for what they are.”
Tim Keller uncovers the roots of this problem while discussing Jesus’ parable of the two lost sons. The parable’s emphases on homecoming, celebration, and restoration cannot be overlooked; however, while such times of merrymaking and celebration can bring fleeting comfort, the events themselves will never meet our deeper need for joy, warmth, and love. Investing the holidays with high hopes in these areas only sets them up for failure, often leaving them, in the words of Keller, “crushed under the weight of our impossible expectations.”
The answer to this crisis is not to cancel the merriment entirely. There’s no room for Scrooge at the Christian hearth. At least, not an unrepentant one. At this time of year, we commemorate our Savior’s Advent as the Light of our world, and it’s entirely fitting and proper that we should do so with warm celebrations infused with festival joy.
Some of us, however, must un-fog the lens through which we view such celebrations.
Instead of building the holidays up in our minds as the one time of year we can be assured of kindness, warmth, love, and cheer, we must instead recognize these expectations for what they are. In many cases, we must gather together their shattered pieces, pile them on the altar, and set them on fire—allowing their flames to rise in sacrifice and worship. Because the holidays are not about us. They are about the Savior.
As we clean our homes for company, we must meditate not on what a wonderful time we will have when they arrive but on the prospect of that day when our hearts will be completely clean before the Lord. As we set the silver and light the candles around the dinner table, we anticipate not just this meal but the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. As we share gifts on Christmas morning, we thank the Father for sending us the greatest gift the world has ever known: Immanuel—God with us.
This, then, is the antidote to keep us from crushing the holidays under the weight of our expectations. We ask the Holy Spirit to keep our celebrations in their proper place, reminding us that they are shadows of what is to come. To borrow from Paul, now we rejoice imperfectly—as one viewing the feast through a shadowed mirror—but one day, we will celebrate face to face.
Protestant reformer William Tyndale, who worked on an early English translation of the Bible, once noted that the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion)—often translated good news—actually signifies “good, mery, glad and joyfull tydinge, that maketh a mannes hert glad, and maketh hym synge, daunce, and leepe for joye.” What I love most about this quote (other than the delightful Sixteenth-Century spelling) is how it pierces right to the heart of the Gospel.
The Father sent His peace into our darkness, calling us to restored fellowship and a future of festive delight. These are indeed good tidings of great joy! I can’t think of a better reason to “synge, daunce, and leepe for joye.”
Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Penguin Group, 104.
Mounce, R.H. 2001. “Gospel” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 512. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
About the author:
This article was written by Ruth Buchanan and published in the Winter 2016 edition of The Beautiful Spirit magazine. Ruth is a Christian novelist and playwright. She lives and works in South Florida. Visit her website at https://ruthbuchananauthor.com/.