“My heart exults in the Lord;
my horn is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.”
– 1 Samuel 2:1
Like most people, I begin every new year with the high hopes of all I will accomplish in the next 365 days. I love the prospect of a fresh start, a clean slate, a book waiting to be written. I can’t resist committing to something new, or healthier, or better.
As a direct result of the way I celebrate each new year, the end of the year is always a particularly strange time for me. It becomes a time of evaluation. I ask myself, “What I have done that was noteworthy?” Or even, “What did I do that I said I was going to?” With a birthday just a short 15 days from the end of the year, I’m also looking back on what I have accomplished in this particular year of my life. I’m a couple of weeks out now from my next birthday, and 22 is looking incredible in some ways and confusing in others.
As 2016 draws to a close, I find myself wishing we could just collectively be done with it ASAP. I had great expectations for a lot of different aspects of life this year, many of which were dashed in some pretty dramatic ways.
That’s not to say that nothing wonderful happened for me in 2016. On the contrary, I’m living in a new city studying for a crazy degree at a school I applied to in 2015 just to see if I could even be accepted. My calling has been confirmed and challenged into growth in the last 12 months in ways I never could have predicted.
Still, we can all agree that 2016 has been particularly violent and discordant. There have been 353 reported mass shootings in the United States just this year. That’s at least one for every day of the year so far.
While the percentage of people experiencing homelessness shows a general trend of slow decrease, there are more than 560,000 people around the country who are currently experiencing homelessness. That’s more than the population of the whole city of Tuscon, Arizona.
There are more men and women incarcerated in the United States per capita than any other nation in the world, despite the fact that America is third in population size by a considerable margin.
“Alright,” you say, “That’s enough! I get it!”
I’ll stop there, although the list of disturbing statistics from 2016 both in the States and in other countries around the world is endless. No matter which way you look at the state of things, 2016 was a pretty bleak year… even without a mention of the dangerously divisive election we just barely survived.
In times like this, the Christian witness stands against the grain of all that is happening. When we can’t wait for the ball to drop at 12 AM on January 1st, when we have to turn off the news because we just can’t listen anymore, when it seems like the world is darker and more dangerous than ever before, the message of hope is bold and controversial.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This season in the church calendar extends back four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin adventus, which means ‘visit’ or ‘coming’. Even in less liturgical churches where Advent is not officially celebrated, Christians around the world prepare for the Christmas season a few weeks before Christmas Day.
Advent is a season of symbolism. In many ways, it hearkens back to the anticipation of the post-exile Jews for their coming Messiah, who they believed would be their military hero. Jesus Christ certainly did not fit like a puzzle piece in the midst of all their preconceived notions, but he brought salvation in a way they could never have anticipated. In the same way that they waited eagerly for fulfilled promises and deliverance and, ultimately, salvation, so we too look forward to the coming of Christ.
Advent also mirrors the mentality of an expectant mother. Just as Mary awaited the birth of her son in the days leading up to Christ’s coming, so we too become pregnant with hope.
Mary’s story is not a new one. In fact, even in the relatively small canon of scripture, there is a story of a similarly expectant mother waiting for the birth of her son.
Hannah was one of several wives of a faithful Jewish man in the time just before King David, somewhere around 1000 BCE. Although she was barren, she was the favorite wife of her husband, who did not understand her grief as she prayed continually for a child who was never conceived. She endured the constant ridicule of his other wives, who provided him with child after child.
The story in 1 Samuel finds her accompanying her husband and his other wives to the temple in Shiloh, where they would together make sacrifices and worship. Late one night, Hannah went to the temple to pray again for a child. Having vowed to dedicate her child to the Lord, the text says she continued to pray.
Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli, [a priest], took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” – 1 Samuel 1:13-17 ESV
If you’re a Christian, Hannah’s story should pull at your heartstrings a little. In this year of so many tragedies and so much hatred and death, I found myself coming to God in prayer again and again, pouring out my soul for new life despite the barrenness of the world, sometimes without any words to say just like Hannah.
After years of painful and fruitless prayer, Hannah’s request for a child was granted. She named him Samuel, a name that sounds like the Hebrew word שמואל or shmuel, which means ‘heard of God’. As soon as he was weaned, she returned to the same temple where she had prayed. She handed over his care to the priest, Eli, who would in turn raise Samuel to become both priest and prophet. Hannah kept her promise. She gave completely to the Lord the very thing, the very person for whom she had so desperately and continuously prayed.
While the new year is typically celebrated on January 1st, the Church follows a different calendar. Interestingly, for the Church, Advent is the beginning of the new year. Advent is a fresh start, a clean slate, a book waiting to be written. Advent is an answered prayer. Advent is a long-awaited infant, bathed and swaddled, eyes still shut tight against the harsh light, cries soothed at his mother’s breast.
2016 was certainly not our best year. I’m sure we didn’t need any statistics to confirm what we knew to be true. There was more suffering, more anguish, more hatred, more racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism and ableism, more violence, more war, more illness, more death than ever before.
But friends, our God is an Advent God. Our God is the God who answers prayers, even though it may not be in our time or in the way we expected. Our God is the God who takes the form of that long awaited infant, who grows up to surpass and even defy all of our well-intentioned expectations. Our God is the God who follows us into the grave. Most importantly, our God is the God who brings life out of death.
This Advent season, I’m starting my new year anticipating. I’m diving head first into the deep end of hope, immersing myself in it, swallowing it in large gulps. I’m looking forward to the birth of Christ like I never have before, because I need him, and I’m willing to bet you do too.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Grace and peace,