Nativity scenes. Carolers. Presents. Egg-nog. Home Alone 2.
That’s often what comes to mind when I think of Christmas. For others, it’s Santas and lights and uncomfortable family reunions. Others still, it’s church services and a star in the sky.
For good reason, many Christians strive to ensure “the reason for the season” by keeping “Christ in Christmas.” So we read passages from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, or maybe one of the prophecies in Isaiah or Micah. Because that’s where we think the story of the Christ begins. But it really begins way before that.
I’ve recently began observing Advent. The Advent season begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and involves anticipating Jesus’ second coming and remembering the anticipation of his first coming. If we don’t understand why the first coming was so important, we’ll miss the Christmas story, and why we look forward to his return.
Advent means waiting. We often read the Christmas story as Jesus showing up in between the Old and New Testaments. But the Christmas story doesn’t begin in the New Testament with the Gospels, or even with the prophets who spoke of a coming Savior.
The Christmas story begins in Genesis.
Back in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve had rebelled and sinned against God through the deception of the serpent. They didn’t believe they could really trust the goodness of God, so they disobeyed. Instead of smiting them dead on the spot, God curses the serpent, and invokes this promise to the enemy:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
He will crush your head,
and you will strike His heel.”
– Genesis 3:15, NIV
The promise was that the woman would have an offspring that would be bruised by the serpent, but that this child would crush the enemy’s head.
So Adam and Eve knew this Child was coming, someone to crush the enemy and restore what had been lost in the Garden. Where Adam had failed his bride at the tree, they looked forward to One who would save his bride at the tree. Where Adam had disobeyed, they looked for the One who would obey perfectly.
And so they waited, and looked forward to this Child who would come.
Abraham was promised something by God when God called him out from his father’s house:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and IN YOU all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
– Genesis 12:2-3, ESV (emphasis added)
The problem was that Abraham was old. Old. And yet, God gave him a son in his impossibly old age as a sign that our circumstances are never greater than our God. The promise was that IN Abraham, not BY Abraham, would all the families of the earth be blessed. It was that offspring promised to our first parents.
And then God did something that seems like too much: He asks Abraham to offer his one true son, Isaac. Abraham gets his sacrificing gear together and treks with his son to the mountain. When Isaac observes that everything is there except the animal to be sacrificed, Abraham displays his trust in the promise and faithfulness of God:
“Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together. ”
– Genesis 22:8, ESV
God did provide a ram to take the place of Isaac on the altar. But no lamb was provided as an offering, the ultimate show of faithfulness. Where Abraham’s son was not sacrificed, a Son would be sacrificed as a display of the Father’s love.
And so they waited, and looked forward to this Lamb who would come.
Moses lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and they wandered the wilderness on their way to the promised land. But even though God had showed himself in great power and mighty acts and faithful displays of love, they still ran after other gods. Their hearts weren’t changed. Moses was a great leader, but he couldn’t change hearts because Israel was still under bondage of sin and shame and death. But there was a promise:
“The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
– Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV
So they waited for the ancient, promised Deliverer, the one who would deliver His people from the oppressive enemy and the shackles of sin and death. The one who would circumcise their hearts so that they could truly love the Lord and obey him. Where Moses delivered them from physical slavery, One was coming who would deliver them from spiritual slavery. Where Moses wasn’t able to fully lead his people into the promised land because of disobedience, there was One coming who through obedience would be able to bring his people into the great promise. Where Moses introduced the Law, a Prophet would come who would show that salvation came not through the works of the Law, but by the rich Grace of God.
And so they waited, and looked forward to this Savior who would come.
David was the shepherd boy turned warrior who famously felled the giant Goliath with a sling and stone. He was described as “a man after God’s own heart” and he seemed like a great deliverer and God anointed him king over Israel. But as great of a king as he was, he had the infamous incident with Bathsheba and Uriah, and his household was wrought with brokenness. He wasn’t the promised One, but there was a promise made:
“When your (David) days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish His kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.”
– 2 Samuel 7:12-13, ESV
So David and Israel knew that the age-old offspring was coming, a King who would have an everlasting kingdom. It wasn’t just one of David’s physical descendants, for the prophet Isaiah would prophecy:
“Of the greatness of His government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.”
– Isaiah 9:7, ESV
Where David was unfaithful to his bride, One was coming who would be perfectly faithful and protect his bride. Where David would die and his kingdom become divided, One was coming who would be raised from the dead and have a kingdom that would never end.
And so they waited, and looked forward to this King who would come.
There are so many more examples that could be mined from the pages of the Old Testament, but this is what the world was waiting for. A Child, a Lamb, a Savior, a King. This is the promised Messiah we longed to see.
And then between the last pages of the Old Testament and the first page of our New Testament, there was silence from God for 400 years. It seemed as if maybe God had abandoned them. Maybe He had given up on His rebellious people.
Into this silence broke a baby’s cry one Bethlehem night. Into this longing, a longing that began back in Genesis, God himself stepped into creation as the promised Messiah, the promised Immanuel: God with us.
Advent means waiting. In light of his first coming, we eagerly wait for and anticipate his second coming, when he will restore all things.